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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech

I wouldn't normally post twice in a day, but I just saw the video of Obama's speech, and I'm very curious what folks thought about it.  I'll go first.  I thought it was pretty amazing:  intelligent, eloquent, persuasive, and yeah, inspirational.  It was, to me, an actual example of explaining some complex and difficult real and perceived differences, and then trying to build bridges, stressing commonalities and not divisiveness.

Of course the other story here is, "will this 'defuse' the "Wright controversy' sufficiently that Obama is still a plausible candidate?"

So, thoughts on (i) the quality and substance of the speech; and (ii) the effect on Obama's political future?

Posted by JosephSlater on March 18, 2008 at 04:22 PM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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Getting yourself pastored for 20 years by a radical hater shows bad judgment. Lying about it when asked by the media shows dishonesty. Now we know the real reason why you refused to wear a flag lapel pin and why your wife has never before been proud of America. If we take you at your word, you spent 20 years in the company of a man, and never once figured out that he was a virulent racist. A president of the United states cannot afford to be that obtuse. Request for presidency denied.


Posted by: poetryman69 | Mar 19, 2008 8:56:28 PM

First a point I agree with what I take to be more conservative posters on. I don't think demonizing opponents as part of a "hate machine" is healthy. I'm a democrat but I've voted republican, sometimes when I'd met the candidates and concluded the republican was simply a better person. I voted for these candidates because, in part, I felt they saw people like me as human beings rather than parts of a hate machine and respectfully acknowledged points of disagreement. We should see people who differ on some things as people who might be convinced, and certainly as people who may agree and be colleagues on other worthy things.

Respectful discourse is part of that, and one reason I admire Obama is that he practices this. However, some politicians on both sides stoke up support by pitching themselves as fighters against (fill in the blank) hate machine, which means they are writing off all members of (fill in the blank). This sort of appeal coarsens our discussion of issues and leads us to wider differences and angrier politics.

Trying now to practice what I have just preached, I will (gently I hope) challenge some of the above posts. I do think Obama responded to what people were offended by--a series of statements by Wright which were angry, divisive and wildly overreached in moral judgments about this country's painful history on race. Obama said he disagreed with Wright on this, and the whole body of Obama's public work and words shows he is sincere. Obama's book and his speech show that he wants to be part of healing these wounds, and that he thinks compassion, empathy, understanding and honest self-criticism and healthy doubt are part of this.

Also, Obama never posited that what was motivating those offended by Wright's remarks was racism. To the contrary, Obama said he himself was offended by the remarks. He added that his own life experience and experience in Wright's church gave him context that allowed him to understand Wright's anger, but pointedly said we needed to move past that anger. As I saw it, Obama was urging us to understand the anger that he and many of us disagree with, to think about why that anger is there. To his credit, Mike Huckabee today said very similar things and urged people not to be as judgmental on Wright. And Obama's comments were the exact opposite of suggesting racism--he asked us to understand not just the emotions of Wright, but those of white Americans who themselves feel that they are the victims of unfairness born of race.

I don't see how the whole Wright issue reflects Obama's judgment on appointees. Billy Graham was a spiritual counselor for Nixon, but he wasn't much like HR Haldemann or John Mitchell, who were Nixon appointees. (Chuck Colson is a lot like Grahom now, but not then). Wright is Obama's pastor, not an appointee. It's fair game to look at Obama's actual advisors and staff to reach some conclusions about what type of people he would appoint in his administration with. The pastors, poets, singers, and philosophers favored by candidates might lead to some speculation about their personalities, but my guess is that Obama appointees would be more like Samantha Powers and Joseph Stiglitz than Wright (or for that matter, than Haldemann, Mitchell, Colson, Cheney, Rumsfeld . . .).

Finally, I hope that the poster who considers the Wright story somehow more worth public consideration than the Iraq war will rethink this position. It is hard for me to imagine how "there is no point in having the umpteenth argument" on Iraq. For it or against it, the cost, mistakes, and stakes of this war should be the subject of vigorous and thorough public debate. We need to be considering how and why we started this war, what has gone wrong and right, whether to continue it, and if so for how long and at what cost. This election should really be about that--nothing can possibly be more important than whether this war was, is and will be the right thing to do.

I wonder if the reason for so much attention to the Wright issue is to avoid precisely this necessary debate.



Posted by: Charlie Martel | Mar 19, 2008 7:27:10 PM

Joseph - to clear the easy point out of the way first, I know you didn't use that term, but another commenter did. :) As to your main point - whether "Obama's association with Wright really gives [me] more doubts than [I] had previously about Obama's ability to appoint quality members of the Executive or Judicial branches" - yes, it does, and I doubt I'm alone. I won't pretend that I was under any illusions that I would have liked nominations Obama would have offered, but his poor judgment vis-a-vis Wright does raise concerns that go beyond arguable questions of judicial philosophy, and suddenly his hedging on questions of "reparations" and so forth start to appear in a different light. A President's appointments - not just to the judiciary - shape their administration, and we have to be confident that a President will make good choices. Nothing about Obama's handling of this issue - his choices in associating with Wright, exposing his children to Wright, to giving money to Wright, in giving a speech more aimed at slurring his critics than answering them - gives me much confidence in his judgment.

I also disagree with what I take to be the premise of "Reasonable Doubt"'s comment that "Obama's core problem is that he has gotten away from the kind of candidate he was when he wasn't the front-runner." Obama's core problem is that he's a very, very normal politician who made great strides by claiming to be something other than a very, very normal politician, thus, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that would harmlessly bounce off any other candidate are lethal to him. To be revealed as politics as usual destroys the raison d'être of his campaign. I also disagree that he will be the nominee - I've been saying (albeit mostly to reassure myself) that Clinton will be the nominee at any cost, and I still think that's accurate.

Posted by: Simon Dodd | Mar 19, 2008 4:28:35 PM

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as the "Republican Hate Machine". There's a Democratic one, too. I won't deny that I was a part of it in 2004. It is not in the shop, it is just biding its time. Why waste energy destroying two people bent on destroying themselves?

Obama's core problem is that he has gotten away from the kind of candidate he was when he wasn't the front-runner. He no longer sticks around for questions. He no longer speaks in broad terms about hope and change and the future. He's the front-runner now, so he has pivoted into the "Nominee Shell" that both parties shroud their guy in from Spring until Fall in every election cycle. The difference here is Obama won't survive this by running out the clock on the primary schedule. I wouldn't go so far as Simon did and say he's won his last primary, and I still think he'll win the nomination, but to think this won't get circulated all over again the moment he accepts the nomination is foolish.

Like I said this morning, he handled this well enough he didn't lose any votes he had, but he most certainly did not win votes he didn't have.

Posted by: Reasonable Doubt | Mar 19, 2008 3:48:10 PM

What was so courageous about his speech? It just seemed like the typical Democrat issues framed against a backdrop of racial unity. Without going back and re-reading the transcript, I seem to remember him mentioning the wars in Afghanistan in Iraq, terrorism, global warming, the economy, corporate greed, and health care. Aren't these the same issues that both he and Sen. Clinton have been campaigning on all along?

I don't question his intelligence, eloquence, persuasiveness, or his ability to inspire. In fact, I think his lead over Sen. Clinton is directly attributable to these factors, but I don't think that standing in front of a group of your supporters and telling them that we have a racism problem in America necessarily makes one courageous.

Posted by: Paul Washington | Mar 19, 2008 3:36:30 PM


So Obama's association with Wright really gives you more doubts than you had previously about Obama's ability to appoint quality members of the Executive or Judicial branches? Because, given the very different circumstances of coming to and staying in a church and, say, appointing a Secretary of Labor, it really doesn't "naturally follow" for me.

And although I didn't use the term "Republican Hate Machine," don't we know who that refers to? I listened to Hannity, Glen Beck, and Rush after the speech, and does anybody really think that the level of vitriol there was based on a carefully reasoned analysis of Obama's speech, as opposed to mere partisan (and fairly hateful) hackery? Of course reasonable people can disagree about this issue or about Obama in general. But there is an influential group of people out there who aren't in that category. (And yeah, there are unpleasant nuts on the left too, but not as many are on TV).

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Mar 19, 2008 2:54:42 PM

Much of the "not far enough" reaction to the Obama speech is summarized in Simon's comment: "Obama needs to deal with what has actually offended people." He has.I disagree. He has "dealt with" an abstract caricature of what has offended people. He posited that, even though people claim to be offended by remarks indicating Obama's mentor loathes this country, what's really motivating them is some kind of racial issue, and therefore gave a speech about race. Now, perhaps he sincerely believes that his critics are really just talking in code about race, but that just calls to mind the old saw attributed to Sen. Moynihan that you're entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. It missed the mark because it didn't engage with the actual concerns that people have - which, to tee up a quick reply to Joseph's question, have to do with character and judgment. A big part of the President's job is judging the character of one's potential appointees, and given the poor judgment that Obama's long-term association with Wright demonstrates (something which Obama needed to concede with appropriate contrition, yet expressly refused to), the concerns for Obama's conduct in office seem to follow quite naturally. Ultimately, I think the commenter "Reasonable Doubt" above got it about right: "Did [Obama] sway anyone that wasn't already voting for him? My first instinct is no. This speech may have stopped the bleeding, but it did nothing to fix the already existing problem. Right or wrong, the average American thinks that going to this church and not bolting the moment he heard these controversial statements is a sign of poor judgment." I agree with all that apart from the assertion that the speech stopped the bleeding. I'd bet real money (not much, concededly) that Obama's opinion polling is going to drop significantly, and I would not be surprised if he's won his last primary. His speech failed to address the issue and subtly smeared his critics as racists. So far as I can see, his candidacy over. I've been wrong before, of course, and we'll have to see what happens; perhaps Democratic primary voters just lap that stuff up.

As to the other issues, we're going to have to agree to disagree about whether Obama issued a credible call to "rise above" issues and his position on Iraq. I see no point in having the umpteenth argument on that point. You're of course free to write me off on all this; I find Obama the most allergenic politician I've ever encountered (I suppose the good news is that it's helping me understand the reaction of our friends on the left to President Bush), so it should hardly be surprising that I thought that he failed to rise to the occasion.

It's a little disappointing to hear exhausted liberal cant like "Republican Hate Machine" rearing its head in a forum I had thought more august than that, by the way.

Posted by: Simon Dodd | Mar 19, 2008 2:42:34 PM

I liked Obama's speech. But it doesn't fully square with his campaign's utilization of really divisive strategy "on the ground." I understand he wants to win. I have issues with Clinton as a candidate and the way she has run her campaign. But I do not think declining to support Obama makes one a racist, and I do think that message is telegraphed fairly overtly by Obama campaign strategists. It succeeds in keeping Clinton supporters off balance. It will not work the same way on Independents and tepid McCain supporters.

Posted by: Fencesitter | Mar 19, 2008 2:13:17 PM

The Republican Hate Machine is in the shop. Looks like we'll just have to question his poor judgment (your words, not mine) manually.

Posted by: Paul Washington | Mar 19, 2008 1:45:17 PM

First of all, thank you, Joe, for inviting me to contribute. I listened to bits and pieces of the speech on the radio live, and watched the YouTube of it entirely last night. All in all, it was a terrific speech. I've seen him give better, as far as showmanship goes, but this was not so much about the theater as the content.

I have never heard someone bluntly face the race issue in this country as well as Obama did yesterday. The problem becomes quite simple: Did he sway anyone that wasn't already voting for him? My first instinct is no. This speech may have stopped the bleeding, but it did nothing to fix the already existing problem. Right or wrong, the average American thinks that going to this church and not bolting the moment he heard these controversial statements is a sign of poor judgment. As silly as it sounds, he's going to have to simply stand at a podium and answer every stupid question the press can ask. And only when every mind-numbingly silly question is answered, he needs to be able to stand there and say, "Anything else?" and leave the press without a single question unanswered. Obama has made his candidacy about transparency. He needs to be transparent.

Of course, his staff won't do that, which will leave him with a gigantic glass jaw for the Republican Hate Machine this fall.

The speech yesterday probably assuaged concerns from people with educations, like us, but the average American is dumb as a fencepost. All they're going to care about are the E-mail forwards they get from their friends calling him unpatriotic.

If he can come out of this relatively unscathed? He's got the election locked up. But it won't be easy for him to do.

*Disclosure: I am a staunch Obama supporter, and have been for years. I voted for him, but since I live in Florida, my vote doesn't count.

Posted by: Reasonable Doubt | Mar 19, 2008 11:36:33 AM

I agree with Charlie Martel's characterization of Obama's speech. it has convinced me that Obama is an extremely thoughtful, honest, courageous and decent person. I hope that everyone will read Obama's entire speech and think about what he has to say.

I want also to respond to the characterization of Wright as a "kook." Rev. Wright's church is attended by many predominant members of the African American community in Chicago, including (occasionally) Oprah Winfrey. His sermons reflect a school of thought within the African American church, known as Black liberation theology, which is shared by many eminent ministers throughout this country. Of course I agree that some of Rev. Wright's comments are overwought and offensive. They are emotional outbursts that come from an emotional style of speaking which his congregation finds to be inspirational. His style is not at all out of the mainstream in the African American church. As Obama pointed out in his speech, one of the lessons we can learn from this experience is how racially divided our country is on Sunday morning.

Posted by: Rebecca Zietlow | Mar 19, 2008 11:20:34 AM

First, I echo Charlie Martel's post.

Simon: I don't really understand this "we question his judgement" point. I think Obama eloquently explained his connection to Wright and specifically disavowed his views. Even if you think, "if it were me, I would have acted differently," or "even given what Obama said his connection was with Wright, he still should have taken some action earlier," exactly what problems do you think this will create for him as a President? That Wright will advise Obama on AIDS policies? Or is it that no other President or presidential candidate has ever made a "mistake in judgement" in the non-political part of their lives?

In short, so Obama stayed in Wright's church longer than you think he shoudl have. This makes you think he'll do what, exactly, wrong as President?

Meanwhile, that was one of the most courageous, honest, and accurate portrayals of racial issues in America given by a politician since, um, well, I'll just say "that I've ever heard."

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Mar 19, 2008 10:17:19 AM

Much of the "not far enough" reaction to the Obama speech is summarized in Simon's comment: "Obama needs to deal with what has actually offended people."

He has. Obama has renounced those things that Wright said generally that he considers assaultive of the reality of American progress on racial matters and of the goodness of this country. Senator Obama is not responsible for a line by line specific rejection of everything Wright has ever said with which he disagrees, because Obama is responsible for his own views and not for Wright's. If you take the time to read Senator Obama's books, speeches, and positions, and review his legislative record, there is no doubt what he thinks about broad societal issues, such as race, and specific programmatic policy issues. In fact, it can probably be fairly said that there are few public figures in recent American history who have written and said so much about their views as Senator Obama.

Moreover, there is a goose-gander problem with the insistence that Obama account for all of Wright's comments. Conservative politicians have courted the political and fundraising support of religious leaders who have, among other things, slurred Catholics and Jews, stated that 9/11 was divine punishment for America, and claimed that the horrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina and its flooding was intended by God.
Republican candidates have stood on stages, arm and arm and smiling, with so-called religious leaders who have said these terrible things.

When have any of these Republican candidates, or for that matter any candidates of any party, stood up and said anything remotely approaching Senator Obama's call that we rise above this sort of divise anger?

And while we are considering whether "Obama needs to deal with what has actually offended people", why don't we remember that he dealt with the Iraq war that offends most Americans 5 1/2 years ago when 1) he opposed the war and 2) accurately predicted many of the problems it would cause.

And finally, when we are addressing offensive statements in American public life, let us recall that several years ago, the President of the United States--who launched a war based on the mistake that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction--filmed a video, shown at an elite press dinner, where he tried to make a joke of the fact that those weapons are not there.

Given that at least several hundred thousand people are now dead because of this tragic mistake, the Bush video--and the laughter of the gathered elite press and political class--is in my view the most offensive public statement I have heard in recent memory. And it was made not by a minister, but by Bush himself.

Care to denounce and reject?

Charlie Martel

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Mar 19, 2008 9:38:44 AM

I listened to most of the speech and read the balance of it. It didn't seem to be Obama's best as a matter of rhetoric, and on the substance, I agreed with some of it. But I'm curious: how do supporters of the speech react to some of the claims made in Michael Gerson's op-ed about the speech in the WaPo? Here's a link. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/03/new_wright.html

Is Gerson off? If so, why?

Posted by: Dan Markel | Mar 19, 2008 9:11:21 AM

Getting yourself pastored for 20 years by a radical hater shows bad judgment. Lying about it when asked by the media shows dishonesty. Now we know the real reason why you refused to wear a flag lapel pin and why your wife has never before been proud of America. If we take you at your word, you spent 20 years in the company of a man, and never once figured out that he was a virulent racist. A president of the United states cannot afford to be that obtuse. Request for presidency denied.


Posted by: poetryman69 | Mar 19, 2008 7:45:44 AM

Rick, respectfully, I think Wright's comments are fairly ordinary and race-neutral cant in certain left-leaning quarters (cf. Kevin Barrett, for example, or the average post on the "Democratic Underground"). I don't see this issue as being especially different to the fuss that was generated about a year ago by the Edwards campaign deciding to hire a blogger who it turned out had a history of making really obscene comments about Christians generally and, IIRC, Catholics specifically. The ensuing controversy was not about religion, it was about the willingness of the Edwards campaign to hire people who professed such views; it was about judgment: what does it reveal about this candidate that he gave money to and associated with people who have these views? Likewise, just as that was about the candidate not religion, so this is about the candidate not race. Wright's views aren't interesting by themselves; what's interesting is what Wright's views and Obama's relationship with him implies about Obama. If the purpose of the speech was to say "look, this loony view is mainstream in some communities" - so what? 9/11 conspiracy theories are mainstream in some communities. To get past this contretemps, Obama needs to deal with what has actually offended people. This speech failed to do that; it blathered about race, subtly dodging the issue while insinuating that critics were motivated by racism. It didn't win any points for honesty with me, although I concede that verbal misdirection requires a certain level of intelligence to pull of with the aplomb that - to judge by reaction - Obama managed.

Posted by: Simon Dodd | Mar 19, 2008 12:43:47 AM

A theme of Obama's speech illustrates why Simon is mistaken about its merits: What counts as kooky in this country is most definitely race-specific. Obama succeeded wonderfully in acknowledging this fact without endorsing it. Maybe in Simon's circles, Wright's statements belong to the bonkerist Left. Obama is perfectly correct to point out that in plenty of mainstream black circles, Wright's statements count as legitimate opinion. Likewise, in many ordinary white circles, "Willy Hortonism" is perfectly legitimate: To use barely veiled code words to signal fear of young Black males, for instance, is a normal part of many whites' conversation, so long as blacks are not present. That Obama was willing to acknowledge this fact without shrilly denouncing it was extraordinary: He even validated "Hortonism" by putting racial fears in the mouth of his white grandmother.

Obama's speech was an acknowledgment that perceptions of kookiness are race-specific, to invite both sides to overlook each other's kookiness, and cooperate where cooperation is mutually beneficial. Such a speech is simply eons ahead of Obama's political competitors in terms of candor and maturity.

I am a lifelong Republican, but Obama's speech puts me on the fence with its honesty and intelligence.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Mar 18, 2008 10:10:12 PM

Thanks Joe for the invitation to comment the speech. By way of full disclosure, I've volunteered for Senator Obama in several primary states.

In my view the speech showed many things which led me to support Senator Obama. He thinks deeply and carefully about important, complex matters. He understands many perspectives, including those of people whose experiences are different than his own. He sees people, including himself, as good but less than perfect, and is willing to embrace their humanity despite their flaws. He is honest and courageous, and not afraid to take a stand. He shows his respect for public opinion by expressing his views clearly and in depth so that people can understand his positions fully and make a judgment as to whether they agree. He devotes himself inspiring community and bridging differences. And his gift of language is coupled with a very sophisticated, ethical sensibility about the power of discourse in public life.

I found these things in his books, in his speeches, in his opposition to the war in 2002 and in his speech today. He is a Lincolnian figure, and today's speech was his Cooper Union address.

As to forecasting the effect of the speech on his future, I fall back on the wisdom of Casey Stengel--the reason the future is hard to predict is that we don't know what will happen. What I hope that a person of Obama's intellectual gifts and wisdom can win a Presidential election. What I guess is that history will look at him as one the wisest public figures we have had regardless of how this election turns out.

Charlie Martel

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Mar 18, 2008 8:44:46 PM

I thought that a commenter - not me! - at Prof. Althouse's blog nailed it. Whatever its merits vel non as a stump speech, it didn't really address the issue that prompted it. The Wright story, the commenter noted, isn't "about race. It's about kooks, and the judgment show by someone who would have such a kook as a mentor." That's quite glib, and I wouldn't have written it that way, but I couldn't put it any better.

Posted by: Simon Dodd | Mar 18, 2008 5:21:24 PM

I would agree that the speech was extraordinary in its eloquence, honesty, and courage. In his willingness to speak frankly about both white and Black racial anger, Obama risked alienating both parties. Few politicians aside from McCain have shown such willingness not to patronize voters with platitudes. In the echo chamber of T.V., the chance that Obama's words will be distorted beyond recognition is extraordinarily high. But I am gradually becoming persuaded that Obama is the real deal -- that his claims of being a different sort of politician are genuine, backed up by the full faith and credit of an intelligent, honest, heartfelt, and risky speech.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Mar 18, 2008 5:11:17 PM

I read the transcript (kind of old-fashioned, I know) and thought it was a fantastic read. I can only imagine that it was that much better when presented orally by an excellent speaker. Unfortunately, I think the nuance and subtlety of the message is going will get utterly lost or obfuscated in mainstream media reports on the speech. And on Fox, subtlety will be ignored in favor of screaming insistence that Obama failed to denounce Wright. I never have been of the view that this controversy is fatal to Obama's candidacy--either now or in the general election. But I think the potential power of this speech will be lost or muted. Or he will have to give a similar speech many more times before it sinks in.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 18, 2008 4:38:04 PM

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