On Obama’s Speech

RealClearPolitcs; by Jay Cost; March 19, 2008 

It took me several reads through Barack Obama’s speech to digest its full meaning. The man possesses a sharp intellect that cannot be encountered casually. Though I found myself disagreeing with his assertions at several points, I was mostly struck by the insightfulness of his thinking. My sense is that, for these reasons, the speech will help him in the short run by staunching the bleeding of the last few days.

While I was impressed by his argument, I could not help but return to the central question of his candidacy. He is a man endowed with impressive intellectual capacities – but what public goods have these capacities helped secure? To my mind, the speech points inevitably to this question, which existed long before the Clinton operation decided to exploit it for political advantage. And so, I am left wondering whether the speech will have any net benefit in the long run.

Here is how I read his speech.

Obama opened by arguing that the Framers had a radical vision for “America’s improbable experiment in democracy.” This vision was partially captured in the Constitution – but was incomplete. The first generation left it to subsequent ones “to continue the long march – for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous America.” What is required for this journey is a recognition that out of many people, we are one nation – “that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction.” It is by unifying around common goals that America can achieve prosperity.

Obama understands this deeply. It is part of him, a vision “seared into (his) genetic makeup.” The fact that his candidacy has been so successful is a testament to “how hungry the American people (have been) for this message of unity.”

Unfortunately, it is easy for this country to be side-tracked by what divides it, and nothing divides it more than the effects of slavery – the “original sin” of the nation. Sadly, both sides have either intentionally or unintentionally made comments to divide the nation during this campaign. Obama identified Geraldine Ferraro by name and Bill Clinton by implication as those who have done this.

Reverend Wright has done this, too. His comments “were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”

So, why hasn’t Obama “disowned” Wright? The answer is because Wright is part of him. As a man who stands at the nexus of black and white – Obama understands the deep complexity of a man the media has cast as a one-dimensional caricature. His vitriol is unacceptable, but there is so much more to him than this. He is a good man who has worked hard for his community, who has inspired many to faith in Christ and given them confidence to work to mend a tattered community. Having grown up when “segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted,” his incendiary opinions are understandable, but not excusable. In all, he is a man of deep conflict – much like the African American community of which he is a part. Wright “contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.”

Wright and the African American community are not alone. This duality of good and bad is identifiable in the white community. He can see it in his grandmother, who “sacrificed again and again for (him) – but (was) a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made (him) cringe.”

Because of who Obama is, both Wright and his grandmother, with all of their contradictions and conflicts, are part of him.

The persistence of these contradictions is a testament to the fact that “we’ve never really worked through (the complexities of race) – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” This tension exists not only because African Americans have not been made fully equal partners in the American dream, but also because many poor whites, Latinos, and Asians have been left out, too. It is easy to fall into patterns of blame and recrimination when everybody is left wanting.

The question is what to do about it. We could focus on the salacious spectacles that divide us. Or we could acknowledge that both sides are profoundly correct and profoundly incorrect – that their grievances are real, but they have failed to understand that progress can only be made by trying to achieve the Framers’ vision, e pluribus unum. Each of us needs to recognize that “your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.” This is what his candidacy is about. Obama wants to make real progress by uniting a divided America around a resolution to achieve the nation’s common good.

Here is my reaction to the speech.

As an argument as well as a campaign position, I find it to be subtle yet powerful, which is not to say that I am in full agreement with it. I think Obama offers a generally liberal interpretation of the Constitution and the Founding. I also think his prescriptions for the common good are plainly liberal. Accordingly, I think this unification will be harder to achieve than he is inclined to recognize. While most of us see the same “more perfect union” when we close our eyes, we are deeply divided over how to make the vision a reality. Obama’s biography, personality, and Hamiltonian enthusiasm for unity will not alter what remains a simple Madisonian fact: power is divided and changes are hard to make. Still, I think these are reasonable, defensible opinions. Usually, we do not see this kind of sophistication in contemporary campaign rhetoric.

I saw where Obama was going by creating the parallels between whites and blacks. You might say that he thinks both groups are “half right” and “half wrong.” Again, these are surprisingly insightful comments, given that we are in the fifteenth month of a presidential campaign. I find myself more in agreement with his evaluation of the state of race relations than his conviction that dramatic progress can be achieved by “unifying” the nation. Above all, I was mightily impressed by the courage required to make this argument. He challenged blacks and whites to do better, and he didn’t sugarcoat it. This is not a safe political tactic.

I thought it was a bit of a strain for him to compare Wright to his grandmother. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble. Obama was making a rhetorical point about his personal identification with both group’s internal contradictions. It seems to me that, on that level, the comparison was valid – though I do think that this might be grist for his critics’ mill, which is why he should have been more careful on this point.

My concern with the speech is the following. I am not sure what I think about Obama’s claim that he never heard Wright make incendiary comments. I think that hinges on the definition of “incendiary.” More importantly, I have always thought this was a moot point. Incendiary comments make for great television – but the bigger concern, especially for somebody as smart as Obama, is the philosophy that undergirds them. Obama clearly understands Wright’s philosophy – even if he never heard Wright say what has generated this firestorm. If nothing else, yesterday he contextualized Wright into the broader narrative of the American racial division. He would not have been able to do that so ably if he had only learned about this philosophy last week.

This philosophy is divisive, and Obama was aware of it even if he had not heard its most extreme articulations. At the same time, this philosophy is clearly not the core mission of Trinity United Church of Christ. Jeremiah Wright does not wake up every morning dedicated to dividing people. However, the antipode of this divisiveness is the core mission of Barack Obama. He wakes up every morning dedicated to uniting people. This is why Obama thinks Wright is not just wrong, but “profoundly” wrong. Wright’s divisiveness constitutes a grievous mistake on what Obama takes to be the central question of American identity – are we one people or are we not?

Accordingly, this inclines me to ask what Obama did about this profound philosophical error. He has been a parishioner for twenty years, and he has been a strong believer in this philosophy of unity for at least four years, since his keynote address in 2004. I appreciate that he cannot walk away from Trinity because the church speaks to who he is. However, I must ask whether he worked to persuade Wright and the parishioners who applauded so jubilantly at his divisive words that they were wrong on a matter of existential importance. If he did, what was the consequence of those efforts? Did he succeed in bringing about change at Trinity?

These are reasonable questions to ask. They speak to the implicit warranty that a candidate offers when he or she runs for any office. Candidates make all kinds of promises about what they will do, and voters need to find some way to gauge whether they will keep their word. One way to do that is to look at what they have done. By contextualizing Jeremiah Wright in the broader dilemma of American divisiveness, Obama has identified his experience at Trinity as a small instance of a larger problem that plagues the country, the problem to which he intends to dedicate the 44th presidency. It is therefore reasonable to ask what he did – empowered as he was as a high-profile, long-standing parishioner – to change the viewpoint of Wright and Trinity, and whether those efforts were successful.

The essential problem of the speech is that it gives no answer to these queries. Obama recognizes the problem with Wright’s viewpoint, feels strongly that it is part of a problem in society that needs to be corrected, but offers no evidence of his work to correct it. Instead, he says, “Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.” But there are many ways to “disagree.” Did he merely shake his head quietly in the pews and complain to Michelle on the drive back to Kenwood? Or did he do something about it? Many parishioners in many churches or synagogues would do something if their pastors, priests or rabbis went astray on an important issue. Many more would expect a future president to do something.

What could be political trouble for him is that these are specific versions of the general question Hillary Clinton has been asking for weeks. Can’t you just hear her now, in the back of your mind, say in response to this speech what she has said dozens of times before? “I have been working on these issues for 35 years. My husband and I made real progress in the 90s. You can identify the problems, but what have you done about them?”

Hillary Clinton did not invent this question. She is just exploiting it. The question is a real one that each voter must answer and weigh for himself. That would be the case regardless of whether Mrs. Clinton ever uttered “35 years” or not. Thus, the speech returns us to the essential gamble of the Obama candidacy. It is simply true that his résumé is thin. It is not the thinnest of our past presidents. Chester Arthur probably gets that prize. However, it is thinner than what most Americans typically expect from a president. Obama is betting that voters have the same reaction to the Wright speech as they do to his candidacy itself: they are so persuaded by his insightful diagnosis of the national ailment that they are not bothered by the fact that he has done little to date to cure it.

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