2008: Barack Obama's 'More perfect union'

Sen. Barack Obama's talk this morning in Philadelphia on race (transcript, YouTube) showed why he has gone from nowhere to become the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was the best address by any candidate so far in this campaign. If all there was to being president was speechifying, he would be unbeatable.
Charles Murray: Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I'm concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant -- rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America. It is so far above the standard we're used to from our pols.
David Corn: ....a speech unlike any delivered by a major political figure in modern American history. While explaining--not excusing--Reverend Jeremiah Wright's remarks (which Obama had already criticized), he called on all Americans to recognize that even though the United States has experienced progress on the racial reconciliation front in recent decades (Exhibit A: Barack Obama), racial anger exists among both whites and blacks, and he said that this anger and its causes must be fully acknowledged before further progress can be achieved. Obama did this without displaying a trace of anger himself.
Peter S. Canellos: For perhaps the first time in the 2008 campaign, Obama presented a big problem as something to be confronted by average people -- the aggrieved white worker, the black person fuming about injustice -- who are part of his own political constituency. There was no corporation or lobbyist or rival politician in the picture.
James Fallows: It was a moment that Obama made great through the seriousness, intelligence, eloquence, and courage of what he said. I don't recall another speech about race with as little pandering or posturing or shying from awkward points, and as much honest attempt to explain and connect, as this one.
Andrew Sullivan: I have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man's faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.
First Read: His tone throughout was quiet and thoughtful. The same speech could have been delivered in a fiery tone. But Obama chose one that was quiet and thoughtful. It did little to lessen the impact and may have added to the weight of his words.
Hillary Clinton: I did not have a chance to see or to read yet Sen. Obama’s speech, but I’m very glad that he gave it. It’s an important topic. Issues of race and gender in America have been complicated throughout our history, and they have been complicated in this primary campaign. There have been detours and pitfalls along the way.
Marc Ambinder: How it plays will determine how it plays. If the media focuses more on the Wright defense-by-renouncements and then juxtaposes them with clips of Wright's comments, then I think the trouble remains. The seeds of doubt about who this guy really is may be nourished. I know that Obama believes that a discussion about race plays to his benefit, no matter what people think about white working class voters and their latent feelings. Perhaps this is the beginning of his opportunity to lift the veil and get everyone -- not just himself and the media -- to talk openly.
[And] I do think that Obama's speech was a marvel of contemporary political rhetoric. Politically, analytically and emotively, it hit many high notes. His acknowledgment of white working class resentments (busing) and about the perception that there's been no racial progress, his willingness to stick by his friends, his grasp of history, his sense that our views of race are cramped and caricatured... all of that is something that even those who disagree with the substance of his speech, can, I think, appreciate.
Oliver Willis: One of my personal maxims has been that politicians will disappoint you. The ones you like will have personal failings, while the ones you detest will fail time and time again. With Senator Obama, for the first time in my life, I have watched a political leader who I don’t worry if he’ll be up to the task. It’s like you had Michael Jordan in his prime or Joe Montana with 2 minutes to go. It’s that feeling where you say to yourself: Ok, breathe, he’s got it. Chill, Barack’s got it.
The speech was especially interesting in the light of conservative polemicist Shelby Steele's analysis, published today before Obama's address, of the political advantages in being black. How do you turn race to your advantage?, Steele asks.
The answer is that one 'bargains.' Bargaining is a mask that blacks can wear in the American mainstream, one that enables them to put whites at their ease. This mask diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being white in a multiracial society. Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer's race against him. And whites love this bargain -- and feel affection for the bargainer -- because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity for whites to experience racial innocence.

This is how Mr. Obama has turned his blackness into his great political advantage, and also into a kind of personal charisma. Bargainers are conduits of white innocence, and they are as popular as the need for white innocence is strong. Mr. Obama's extraordinary dash to the forefront of American politics is less a measure of the man than of the hunger in white America for racial innocence.

His actual policy positions are little more than Democratic Party boilerplate and hardly a tick different from Hillary's positions. He espouses no galvanizing political idea. He is unable to say what he means by 'change' or 'hope' or 'the future.' And he has failed to say how he would actually be a 'unifier.' By the evidence of his slight political record (130 'present' votes in the Illinois state legislature, little achievement in the U.S. Senate) Barack Obama stacks up as something of a mediocrity. None of this matters much.

Race helps Mr. Obama in another way -- it lifts his political campaign to the level of allegory, making it the stuff of a far higher drama than budget deficits and education reform. His dark skin, with its powerful evocations of America's tortured racial past, frames the political contest as a morality play. Will his victory mean America's redemption from its racist past? Will his defeat show an America morally unevolved? Is his campaign a story of black overcoming, an echo of the civil rights movement? Or is it a passing-of-the-torch story, of one generation displacing another?
With his unique personal history, Obama understands the political role he is playing better than his opponents, which is why his candidacy has blind-sided them. Steele thinks that bargainers have an Achilles heel that in Obama's case may bring him down. "And yet, in the end," he says,
Barack Obama's candidacy is not qualitatively different from Al Sharpton's or Jesse Jackson's. Like these more irascible of his forbearers, Mr. Obama's run at the presidency is based more on the manipulation of white guilt than on substance. Messrs. Sharpton and Jackson were 'challengers,' not bargainers. They intimidated whites and demanded, in the name of historical justice, that they be brought forward. Mr. Obama flatters whites, grants them racial innocence, and hopes to ascend on the back of their gratitude. Two sides of the same coin.

But bargainers... succeed as conduits of white innocence only as long as they are largely invisible as complex human beings. They hope to become icons that can be identified with rather than seen, and their individual complexity gets in the way of this. So bargainers are always laboring to stay invisible. (We don't know the real politics or convictions of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey, bargainers all.) Mr. Obama has said of himself, 'I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views . . .' And so, human visibility is Mr. Obama's Achilles heel. If we see the real man, his contradictions and bents of character, he will be ruined as an icon, as a 'blank screen.'"
It is why the revelations of Rev. Wright are so dangerous to Obama, why this is the most important speech he will ever give. Wright is a challenger who goes far past Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his anti-American outrage ("God damn America"); it would sink Obama's campaign if he came to be associated with Wright's views, however valid they might be, however unexceptional they may sound to members of the black community.

But to hold that Obama had to make this speech if his candidacy was to survive is not to give him credit for the brilliance and courage of his response to the biggest crisis of his campaign; whatever else you say about it, it's hard to imagine a better brief for the defense. This wasn't Mitt Romney trying to get around suspicions about his religion by denying that his faith means anything; Obama presents a nuanced outline of the bargainers case without pretending that the wages of race don't need to be paid. And of course he delivered it in at perfectly nuanced "quiet and thoughtful" pitch; to have used a "fiery tone" would have been like throwing on the house lights at a shadow play. It all may be calculated, but, unlike most political discourse to which we are subjected, at least it could never be called trivial.

Now can we get back to talking about the empire and the economy?

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