The Obama Speech

I’m an Obama supporter, so I’m already inclined to have a high opinion of his politics, speeches, etc. But I can also say that one of the few things I actually spent time studying in college was the history of Presidential rhetoric and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement in the U.S., and in that context Obama’s speech today was quite remarkable. Pretty much unprecedented, I would say.

I’m hesitating right now, trying to decide if the world really needs another blog post about Obama, or what was right or wrong with this particular speech. I guess I’ll make one point and let it stand at that, though I’m game to discuss this in the comments if anybody else is.

It’s important that Obama didn’t throw Jeremiah Wright, or Trinity United, his church for the last 20 years, under the bus. For better or worse, Obama is telling us this is who he is, this is what goes on in a black church sometimes, and people need to get over it. I don’t suppose he could have said anything else and remained true to what he is, but when faced with a choice of addressing the situation head-on or simply distancing himself from this, he chose to talk about it.

All I ask of each Pipeline Person who reads this is that they either go to the link and watch the speech or read the text. Don’t rely on the media spin for this, even your normal trusted media outlets. There’s too much focus on how this speech plays politically in the now, and by “now” I mean a week-long period. And sadly, that’s increasingly true even of outlets like TPM.

No, this was a speech about history, a discussion of two Americas that is long overdue, and will likely resonate for some time to come. Again, take it with a grain of salt, because I was an Obama fan going in.

But I didn’t just pull the dude’s name out of a hat. This is how I want my President to speak, think, act and respond.

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21 Responses to The Obama Speech

  1. pipelineblog says:

    James Carney’s piece in Time is an excellent analysis of Obama’s gambit. If you don’t have time to read the speech, read this:

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1723302,00.html

  2. Nathan D says:

    When I was in 9th grade I got very into the 60s. At first it was the music and the hair, but through that I read many of the “great” speeches of that era. I never thought I would live to see speeches of that calibre be given by prominent politicians — until today.

    If you don’t read the whole speech, I think this chunk sums it up nicely:

    “The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

    In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

    Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

    Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

    This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own. “

  3. Dave R says:

    One of the better-written speeches of my lifetime. His camp is claiming he busted it out himself this weekend. If true, that’s fricking sweet.

    (Doug, I can’t remember if you drop f-bombs in your posts, so I refrained).

  4. Kieran says:

    Here’s my bottom line: He has gotten a little jammed up on this Wright thing, and this is as amazing a response as anyone could make. If it works, if it seeps down to the public and takes hold and is digested, we will have what I believe will be an extraordinary presidency. If it doesn’t, if Newt Gingrich on Fox and the others spin it away, what it shows is that the nation ain’t ready for him. But if now ain’t the time, I don’t know if it ever will be.

  5. bs says:

    i just spent like 45 minutes typing a lengthy post, only to accidentally refresh my browser and have everything disappear. in short i agree with kieran. it was an amazing response, but my bet is the only folks who will hear the response are people like us who are totally behind obama already, and who also acknowledge that there are a whole host of issues that are multifaceted which cannot be explained away with sloganeering.

    doug, i’m totally with you about tpm. the kurtz response to the obama speech is a perfect example. it’s as if he isn’t aware of his own position in the “media” as he criticizes it for focusing on “bite-sized” pieces of information. perhaps he could evaluate whether or not obama’s argument was good or bad instead of just saying that it can’t be spun. after all there are probably a couple hundred thousand people who read kurtz’s piece.

    i used to see tpm as a criticism of the bush administration’s talking points. a liberal bent for sure, but a recognition that the karl rove approach of denigrating your political opponents and dividing their support was an approach with negative consequences for our politics. as he expanded his staff, i felt like the type of material on the site was what he had started out being critical of. instead of lampooning divisive talking points, he was creating the same for the left. i see less of this in josh marshall’s writing than some of the other staff members, but i’ve definitely turned down the frequency which i visit the site.

    btw–hillary’s response is curious. it is basically two parts: 1) i didn’t hear the speech or read it (this has to be a lie); 2) i’m a woman and that means i understand the complexity of the issues just as well as obama. seems like she wants to keep the narrative on Rev. Wright and not on Obama’s speech.

  6. Doug Hennessee says:

    I agree, Kieran. We’re either ready or we’re not. It’s going to be close.

    But of course Obama has to win the nomination first. I was going to write a post about this phenomenon, but here’s as good a place as any…

    I work with a number of women who I would say are solid Dem/Liberal, between the ages of 45 and 55. Most, if not all of them, are Hillary supporters. Maybe that’s due to their demographics, and maybe it’s not, but it’s a common theme to hear them discuss how HRC is mistreated by the media (a true claim in many respects, though Obama can make the same claim in other ways), but what’s alarming to me is their suspicion of Obama. It’s not so much the “empty suit” charge as it is the idea that “he may not be who he says he is”, whatever that may mean.

    I’m sure it’s likely a case of an Obama supporter being appalled that anybody can question Obama, and vice-versa, but I’ll be curious to hear if Obama’s speech even penetrated their consciousness at all. It doesn’t mean they have to change their support for HRC, but if a speech of this magnitude doesn’t even register with people of that age, of that political bent, then that’s a bad sign for Obama and the issues he’s discussing.

  7. kelly says:

    Let me say some really insulting things, but I recognize I cannot help myself. The ‘tearing of the democratic party’ meme that is floating around is both true, and has created the gamewomanship atmosphere that is framing this nomination process. It is _old school_ and Hillary is as good as its going to get on the dem side of the fence. The argument that she can ‘put up her dukes’ better than Obama and take on the GOP machine is probably also true. IF you accept this is the kind of political dialog we want to continue to have; framing that we indeed want to continue with it. I think Doug you said it best when you talked about the generational divide with the candidates. Hillary is a boomer, which means to me, socially liberal, but Victorian ideals. Boomers, and particularly HRC supporters, literally want to have the discussion of ‘we’re both candidates of representing political minorities’; we’re equal, now lets go to the score board…. Ferraro scores Obama a point, Wright puts 2 points on the board for HRC…. its simple, its stupid, and its the way the boomers vote.

    Go to CNN coverage of the Obama speech and read the blog comments. There are a lot of middle class voters who literally say, ‘I like Obama, but Wright reminds me of Jackson, Sharpton, and a whole bunch of other black men that make me uncomfortable; and if he’s a friend of Obama my vote is cast’…..

    I was blown away by Obama’s speech, and I hope this meme is temporarily over. But I don’t think HRC voters are going to be persuaded. They by and large ignored the speech is my guess.

    Imagine the response if Hillary had given a similar speech about women in politics? She’ll never give that speech and confront the complexities even though she is a died in the wool feminist, who has had these discussions, arguments, and fought for these issues her entire life…. she’s much more eager to compromise to get elected. I think a woman who started her political career waaaay back in the day would have any other choice but to compromise in order to get changes made. But the point is, she’s done giving that kind of speech.

    I’ll go as far to say what Kieran, Brent, Doug you are all saying. No one is going to get that speech outside of the Obama base for the most part; and while the issue might disappear, the discussion of racial tension and complexity is not really going to happen.

    But what Obama can say, from here on out, is ‘are we going to talk about the economy, the war, medical care, the issues we all care about ….. or do we want to talk about an angry black man as a mechanism to tarnish my policy suggestions?’ He doesn’t even have to call into the question that shit is racist… its simply implied. It was the gist of his response, and sound bite enough to rally a defense in any future conversation.

    Also on another front….. anyone else get the impression that we all consider HRC as a contender simply because she wills it and frames it as an actual choice? If I were Obama, I’d stop talking about her altogether….. move past her, and start running against McCain. She still has traction, in part, because the Obama camp continues to engage her.

  8. David R says:

    I think its sort of a chicken-or-the egg thing. The reason most of us are Obama supporters is that we get off on a candidate who can a) write like this in the first place, and b) give a speech full of nuances on a subject that demands nuances instead of reducing everything to pithy catchphrases.

    However, the only reason someone would read or listen to the entire speech (absolutely necessary to take home its brilliance) is if they are an Obama supporter already.

    Thus, most non-Obamaniacs will be content to hear a few sound bites from the speech and call it good. This morning on NPR they promised coverage on the speech after the break, which made my wife Carrie (a Hillary supporter) say, “oh good, I’m curious to hear what he had to say.”

    When they came back they sampled a couple of sentences hear and there with some boring surface-level commentary thrown in, with the net result being very underwhelming. I could tell by the end there was nothing to compel her to track down the entire speech herself.

    At least some future political science students will be forced to read that speech. I have a feeling that its already on its way to being forgotten by most of America.

  9. bs says:

    i agree with all parts of your post kelly, in particular the last section. most of the democratic primary up until this point has been running against the bush legacy while jockeying for position amongst the other democrats. for example, all of the candidates bash the war on iraq as a huge mistake, they get big applause from the crowds then they snipe about who opposed it more and when they chose to oppose it. that shit won’t have traction in the general election because we are past it. by the time november rolls around i bet american voters care a hell of alot more about the mounting debt crisis and rising cost of energy than who can pull out of iraq the fastest. those of us who were dead set against the war in iraq from the very beginning (and the people who self-classify themselves that way are a hell of a lot more today than they were 5 1/2 years ago) will not vote for mccain anyway.

    btw–earlier i commented that her response had been curious, the more i think about HRC the more i say “F**K YOU Hillary”. if she were a decent human being she would come forward and say the attacks on obama re: rev wright are unfair and divisive. obama has done virtually the same thing in regards to the ferraro’s silliness, not letting ferraro off the hook, but letting HRC off the hook for one of her surrogates comments. HRC instead is just letting obama take it on the chin and she has to know that he’s the likely dem nominee. i might show up and vote for ralph nader again if she’s the nominee.

  10. David R says:

    BTW, I caught a Coors commercial last night on cable featuring a song full of lyrics like:

    “Changin’. Every thing’s changin’. I’m through with all this changing. I like the way I’m living and I’ve got my reasons why. And I’m not gonna go on changin’. I’m not gonna go changin’.”

    Great stuff. Wonder who they are focusing on with that one?

    Nicely dovetails with an Onion article from today:

    http://www.theonion.com/content/news/black_guy_asks_nation_for_change

  11. Doug Hennessee says:

    Now don’t crazy, bs. There’s not a world in which it makes sense to vote for Ralph Nader in the upcoming election.

    Here’s the question I want somebody to ask Obama: After all this talk of hope, after seeing there’s clearly a market for what he’s offering, what does he do if he doesn’t win the nomination?

  12. bs says:

    the nader comment was a bit of hyperbole. but the longer this campaign goes on, the less i like HRC.

  13. kelly says:

    I went from being a sympathetic supporter of HRC, to a HRC basher. She has such talent, insight, and intelligence. And because its been a mans game, and she has seen how to win, she emulates and enthrenches those tactics as she tries to improve their execution. She’s smart and calculating, and that deserves respect in many circles. But for me? It just pisses me off. She purposefully ignores the ‘high road’ for a strategy she thinks is more tenable. I guess it took someone like Obama for that contrast to be so stark…. and if it was a HRC vs. Biden nomination I’d be rallying to her call. But wow….. now that there is someone ‘real’ in the running, I just hate her political wiles.

  14. Kieran says:

    Hillary has crossed the Rubicon so many times I’ve lost count. Was it when she said McCain is a proven commander in chief but Obama isn’t? When it when she waffled on whether he was muslim (not hey, I”ve prayed with Barack. He’s a Christian.” but rather, “I’ve seen no evidence he’s muslim” and “as far as I know” he’s not muslim), Actually, I think my favorite is when Obama is confronted with some ridiculous bullshit regarding Farakhan. Obama’s asked if he “rejects” Farakhan’s support. Obama says he’s denounced his anti-Semitism, didn’t ask for his support, and won’t do anything with him. Clinton could have taken the high road and said, you know, we are all on the same team here, and scurillous suggestions of anti-semitism will not stand. No, she says, “well, when I was offered support by some fringe group, I rejected it.” Obama then comes back with the denounce and reject line, which is a classic.

  15. pipelineblog says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. I just watched the speech again, and guess what? Obama stole the first line from someone else! Typical. “We the people” indeed.

    Nice try, Barack HUSSEIN Obama!

  16. kelly says:

    Uh sooooo, the unsurprising preliminary results are in and Gallup has Hillary back in the lead nationally since the Wright flap (although Obama’s speech hasn’t fully settled) and now both of the dems are losing to McCain.

  17. Steve C says:

    I posted the speech as my class’s discussion topic for the week.

  18. Nathan D says:

    I have to believe that this speech being the most watched thing on YouTube is at least a sign that things are changing — that the “horse race” analysis no longer has a monopoly on political discourse. Now, don’t get me wrong – it’s clear that when even NPR’s coverage of the speech is a glossed-over bunch of crap that we have a LONG way to go. If Obama doesn’t get the nomination I am simply not going to be excited about supporting HRC — and I seriously doubt she would win.

  19. Chris W says:

    Kelly, I agree with you about Hillary’s earning the scorn of many who would otherwise support her but who don’t like seeing her ‘out-asshole’ a bunch of dudes.

    As Hillary and Billary have jived around, saying things like “I didn’t say [R. Reagan’s] name” and “Jesse Jax won South Carolina,” and of course Hillary’s giving LBJ credit for the heavy lifting during the Civil Rights movement, Obama has demonstrated a dignified style of competing well without seeming to fight. “Fight” seems to be one of Hillary’s favorite words–I thought I saw something important when in a debate she and Obama gave the same answers about negotiating with Cuba, except that hers started with the word “no” and his “yes”!

    Who’s the grown-up? Not the wise-cracker, but the wise person–this is certainly a time when the populous ought to crave transparency and good judgment. And now that Hillary has shown herself willing to play the bully, and bend rules, and play dumb, and play dumber, I would call Obama easily the most feminist candidate.

    I think is his Constitution-respecting, progressive moderation is as remarkable as his complexly textured life history. I also love listening for the Kansas influences to eek out in his speaking style and mannerisms–he far out-Jimmy Stewart’s Ronald Reagan, for the same reason he’s going to earn the heavy center of the Democrats’ nominators over Hillary: he’s not a fake.

  20. Stanton says:

    What is HRC’s foreign policy experience? Ask and ye shall receive:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/23/us/politics/23experience.html

  21. Doug Hennessee says:

    Good stuff, Stanton. This whole Clinton records/tax return controversey has been interesting, in that it makes it very easy to remember what the 1990’s were like. It always seemed like there was some sort of witch hunt going on with the Clintons in the cross-hairs. But then, it seemed like more often than not, the Clintons weren’t able to completely wipe the slate clean. Always ambiguity and fog with them, it seems.

    So, she made international trips. That seems fair enough. It also seems as though she overstated the importance of many things she did, although her camp claims (and here is the fog du jour) that her schedule doesn’t show some of the really important stuff.

    I think she can legitimately make the claim that she had a front row seat to a lot of the big events of the 1990s. Much like a journalist, a White House advisor, or perhaps an ambassador.

    Sorry. Not enough for me to outweigh what I view as Obama’s positives, and the negatives of another Clinton presidency. Oh, and three cheers for typical Clinton transparency in redacting so much of the schedules. But two of the cheers have been redacted for this release.

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