3/20/2008

Obama's Speech: The Political Impact

The big political story this week concerns the much-anticipated speech on race that Barack Obama gave in Pennsylvania. This speech was mainly in response to the controversy surrounding the firestorm brought about by remarks from his pastor Jeremiah Wright, but one can't help but wonder if it was also in response to the lingering racial tone the presidential race has taken over the past few months starting with Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of his campaign and Bill Clinton's race-baiting in South Carolina.

Many pundits have already written about this speech and came to various conclusions. Liberal Democrats who liked Obama generally liked his speech and felt energized by his uplifting rhetoric. Many claimed that it was the best speech since "I Have a Dream." Conservative Republicans who didn't like him much to begin with were generally unimpressed. Some of them said it was more political than courageous.

But liberals and conservatives are not the people Obama needed to address. The audience Obama should have been the most concerned about is soft supporters, mild skeptics, independent Whites, moderate Whites, and blue-collar Whites. These are the voters that could vote for John McCain (and maybe even Hillary Clinton) just as easily as they could vote for Barack Obama.

The biggest problem with Obama's speech is that it was a bit too cerebral for the voters who most needed to hear it. This is not to say that downscale Whites, for example, are unintelligent or bigoted. However, to appreciate the full value of Obama's speech, one needs to invest the time in sitting down and reading the entire transcript of the speech or watching it on YouTube. However, most voters, regardless of ideology, simply don't do that. Either they don't have regular access to the internet or they simply don't have the time because of their other responsibilities. Or perhaps they do have the time, but aren't interested enough in doing this research on their own. For better or worse, we live in a soundbyte political culture which explains why simple slogans like "cut and run" and "he was before it before he was against it" trump nuance and complexity every time.

These voters who didn't hear the speech in its entirety will only see snippets of it on the 6:00 news or read a short article about it in their morning newspaper. More troublesome for Obama, the clips they show on television will usually be immediately followed up or preceded by Jeremiah Wright's incendiary remarks about the government deliberately starting AIDS in Black communities and the United States' bringing September 11 upon itself because of its foreign policy. Playing a 10-second soundbyte from Obama's speech is not going to offset the anger that Wright's comments created among these voters.

Of course, Obama was asking voters of all races to be honest with themselves about their own private apprehensions regarding their prejudices. That's fine. And voters who don't feel they need to have this discussion or engage in this introspection are essentially missing the point of the speech. However, politics is not about speeches, nor is it about how well people understand these speeches. It's about how they react to them. My sense is that blue-collar Whites probably did not (or will not) react favorably to this speech even though this is not necessarily their fault or Obama's fault. In these voters' minds, Obama may be well-spoken and inspirational. But when they listen to his pastor's words, they are offended and disturbed. And when they consider the fact that Obama has been closely associated with this pastor for 20 years, they will wonder exactly how much Obama and this pastor have in common.

These voters aren't necessarily racist. However, Obama's new problem is that the race issue is now turning into a patriotism issue. Just a few years ago, Americans were eating "freedom fries." Knowing that an aspirant for President of the United States spent 20 years of his life attending a church whose pastor says "Goddamn America" and makes the same unpopular arguments as Ron Paul regarding September 11 probably renders Obama unacceptable to the very voters he needs to wrest away from John McCain. Even worse, Wright's comments contradict Obama's message of unity, hope, civility, and reconciliation.

Republicans are surely licking their jowls over this Wright development and Obama's subsequent speech. They had been hoping for a Hillary Clinton nomination because they thought she would be easier to beat than Obama. But now it's looking more and more like Obama is the paper tiger who won't be able to hold the Midwestern states that are chock full of Reagan Democrats who were more likely to be put off by Obama's speech. States like Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan suddenly look a bit more winnable for the GOP.

And the more time the media spend dissecting Obama's speech and the fallout from it, the less they are comparing Obama with McCain or covering Obama's positions on Iraq, the economy, and healthcare. And because neither Obama nor Clinton can secure the nomination via pledged delegates alone, Hillary Clinton can make a compelling argument to superdelegates in these swing states that Obama is too risky.

Obama is turning into the "Black candidate." This is not entirely his fault, but the longer everyone is talking about Black churches, Black pastors, and Black racism, the worse off Obama is. Obama should watch his polling numbers in the Midwestern states mentioned above carefully because once these Reagan Democrats and independent and moderate Whites are gone, it will be very difficult for him to get them back. Jeremiah Wright represents everything that makes many non-liberal Whites uncomfortable about Blacks, and in their mind, Obama's speech simply didn't go far enough in repudiating him. To these voters, Obama may talk a good game, but he is still "one of them."

John Edwards is probably wishing he hadn't dropped out of the race so soon. And Democratic superdelegates who aren't particularly enamored with Hillary Clinton are probably lamenting the fact that there isn't a third option available.

Again, Obama's speech was courageous, well written, well delivered, thoughtful, and powerful. Other politicians, pundits, and media figures cannot credibly criticize him for this speech because they likely could not give such a speech with even half as much class, eloquence, and balance. But eloquence and thoughtfulness don't win elections. Votes do. And Obama is probably going to hemorrhage them because in his critics' minds, his speech did not address the true source of their concerns.

14 comment(s):

Thomas said...

One think that will resonate from the Jeremiah Wright incident is the continuing question about how much Barack Obama really represents change. People have started pointing out that when push comes to shove, the actual process of voting, Obama votes like a typical liberal. His legislative achievements don't show much bipartisanship.

Reverend Wright is disappointed in America. If I were his age and his race, I wouldn't be the biggest fan of America either. But Obama has premised his campaign on looking past the past and thinking about the future. For example, all the partisanship of the current day that took root in the 1960s can't roil this country forever or we will never solve the problems of tomorrow.

Yet Reverend Wright brings the "past" up again. To Obama, McCain and the Clintons are the "past." Now Obama has been closely linked with a figure of the "past" in the public's eye.

Can he overcome this will determine how successful he will be in November?

namaste said...

obama surprised me completely with his naivete and underestimating of his relationship with rev. wright. yes, the speech was eloquent and classy, but it was the wrong time for a lesson on race. AND he pandered more to disheartened black americans than to any other group. he should have stayed on the neutral ground his campaign was founded on. he actually spent 6 pages of his ten page speech trying to defend the reverend's position. ugh! it is putting it mildly when i say how disappointed i am in this speech and its timing.

~m

namaste said...

btw, anthony, it took you long enuf to write a post on the speech.;) i've been stalking your blog for two days, waiting for it. as i anticipated, your well-written and well-pondered response did not disappoint. nice job.

~m

Brett said...

Although I think most of the conservative reaction to the speech is so much hot air, it does raise the question of why Obama never sought to challenge some of the extreme views of his pastor. As far as I can tell, he more or less simply ignored the unpleasant aspects of Wright's rhetoric, which is what a normal person (including me) would probably do, but Obama isn't supposed to be a normal person; he's supposed to be the voice of change and moving beyond divisions like race.

This is really bad for Obama. Wright basically makes for perfect soundbites, and even Obama's speech can be mutilated as such - I can imagine his comment "I can no more disavow/abandon him than I can disavow the entire black community" being set up after a selection of Wright's rhetoric in a very nasty potential Internet Ad.

On the bright side, maybe the attention paid to the fact that he attends a christian church will start killing off all of that slander about him being a "Muslim Manchurian Candidate".

Schenck said...

Like namaste, I have been eagerly awaiting your response to the speech, and I am not disappointed, per se.

I think you're right. Obama's speech reads more like a prize winning short story than a political speech. More thoughtful and a little lighter on rhetoric than his early people movers, this speech floored Obama supporters and I'm not sure who else.

I read an article at Slate magazine speculating upon the personality types (based on the Myers-Briggs) of the three remaining candidates a little over a month ago. Obama (ENFP) is an idealist, a dreamer, and a natural-born leader. Maybe that's why I support him (I am also ENFP). If he were to come out vehemently persecuting Wright and his controversial statements and disowning his spiritual adviser of 20 years in hopes of tipping the blue collar and moderate whites in his direction, he would have looked even more like a hypocrite. This is who Obama is, and I admire him even more for sticking to his principles and his message of hope and unity. I realize that this speech will not get through to many voters of the groups he needs to win over to decidedly take the nomination (though I see no way he will lose, and the 2 million hit mark for the video on youtube is exciting), but this speech reaffirms for so many the candidate, the ideas, and the future of this country that they are supporting. For that I am grateful, and I have never supported Obama more than I do now.

Schenck said...

Also, I wish more voters would go out and do a little research of their own regarding GOOD things Rev. Wright said.

Here's the sermon that inspired Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope":

Wright's sermon on hope

notverybright said...

I realize that what you and I do, our reason for writing at all, is to assess the political angles of things. But this speech was so remarkable because it was apolitical. By design, it did the hard work of addressing bigger issues than a momentary political crisis. It cries out to be analyzed by some other standard.

So when you say it's "too cerebral" for your average voter, you may very well be right. But so what? How amazing is it that there's the candidate who talks up to the voter rather than down to the voter?

If he were going to follow a politician's script, it would have been an entirely different speech. One that would have allowed you and me to analyze it in the usual political framework.

It wasn't that. It was something else entirely.

As I said in my blog, I'm doubtful that we're worthy of his assumptions about us. But I'm amazed and honored that he holds them.

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

I think Obama did the best that I could do with the situation. What should he have done? If he disowned his pastor, he would through his entire religious upbringing into question. If he repudiated the man, he would be thought of as "push anyone necessary under the front of the car" in order to get elected (a la Clinton). What else could he have done? I think he made ane excellent position.

Personally, I think that this just didn't pop up. I think people frustrated in their failed attempts to discredit Obama dug up whatever they could find.

I say what many, many, many people say: neither Obama nor Clinton can control what pastor tells them in his pulpit. If Clinton's pastor used all kinds of White Supremacy language and if she did what Obama did, then I would believe her.

Preachers often say controversial things, but that does not mean that you agree with them. It gives them a poor image when they speak out against debatable issues and other people take them out of context as a representative of the entire person.

People should read about Reverend Wright. He has made far more speeches that are inspiration and upliting then the kind that CNN and the Today Show love to show over and over and ovar again.

What's even more ridiculous is for Clinton's poll number to increase over this foolishness. I think voters need to realize the manipulation here.

Despite this problem, I think Obama will most likely prevail. Why? Because Americans are smarter than we think we are. When Clinton or McCain start putting Obama and Wright in the same ideological circle, Obama can hark back to this same speech where you "can hate a person's ideas rather than hating the person."

Obama's strengths far outweight his weaknesses against Clinton and especially McCain.

Brett said...

I agree with you on why he shouldn't have disavowed the Pastor, Reginald. I mean, think about it - if he had simply disavowed a pastor whose church he has attended for 20 years, what would that say to all the religious Democrats about his religious commitment?

People instead would be talking about how he simply joined the church for political reasons, and didn't really care if the Pastor was a bigot.

Nikki said...

Hey Anthony great post!!.....For me, of course Obama missed the mark. Most Americans are aware of the struggle for black people and some need a reminder of it from time to time and others are racist and will never change. But I would submit that most americans, black and white ARE trying to get passed a dark history, not by dismissing its existence, but by acknowledging it and doing differently, for some this is not enough. I think a big problem for Obama is that he does not recognize the abilities and goodness already in America. He may have ever so slightly referred to a progression of thought, but his campaign as a whole is based on a crippled people in need of a more capable leader and a dependance on his abilities to achieve success.
Americans should be credited for progress already made and a push for "individual" work he has mandated, but only secondarily to his more important role of caregiver. It is offensive to me to underscore and ignore the current
"good" because he wants to appear as a beacon and not a politician, which he IS. America to me is good. And this is not because I refuse to see the bad that there definately is! He denies the goodwill americans practice everyday and his candidacy ignores a good and functioning america even under an "imbecilic" President. To me he treats americans very childlike and he condescends our abilities. His speech was a reminder to whites who Rev. Wright offended, that we need to excuse his racial explosions and rise above our own resentments. Seems hardly fair to me. Great read!!
:)N

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

Nikki,

How did Obama treat Americans as "childlike"? How does he "condescend their abilities"? I don't quite understand these statements. He may have not "hit the mark," but exactly what specific comments show he is treating Americans like you say?

One other point: Please keep in mind that being Black and American is quite different than being White and American. QUITE different.

His speech may have confused many people, but like John Dewey said, moments of confusion always come before moments of learning.

I think it will take a while to grasp the good and bad that he said.

:)

Anthony Palmer said...

Lots of good discussion here.

Thomas,

You could definitely make the argument that Rev. Wright undermines Obama's message of change because of his consistently ideological record. I wrote a piece about Obama's Inflated Support a few weeks ago that you might want to read. It touches on the exact same thing you observed. Underneath the rhetoric and amicability, Obama is a traditional liberal. I think the appeal of Obama is similar to the appeal of Mike Huckabee in that he doesn't view his political opponents as political enemies. So his tone is a bit more conciliatory. However, Rev. Wright would seem to undermine that.

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Namaste,

I think Obama was really put in a bind. He didn't need to shore up his support among Blacks because he's pulling in about 90% of the Black vote. It seems like he was being forced to try and "choose" a race to identify with, and in the minds of White Reagan Democrats, Obama chose the "other" side. I'm not really sure how Obama could have pleased everyone though.

Thanks for stalking the blog! :-)

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Brett,

You raise a valid point about why Obama didn't seek to distance himself from Wright earlier. However, he wasn't penalized for it in Chicago, nor was he penalized for it in Illinois. And this brings up the issue of why this is even an issue now. It's not like these sermons just happened.

But you're right, Obama should have been prepared with a better explanation for why he hadn't distanced himself from Wright earlier. While Obama is free to associate with and worship with whoever he wants, the fact is, when you're running for President, this matters to a whole lot of people.

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Schenck,

I remember Myers-Briggs. If I remember correctly, I scored an INTP. So that may somewhat explain why I have not quite caught Obama fever even though I'm open to his candidacy.

The fact that people are at least talking about race is good, but I really hope the people who are a bit more hostile towards Obama on this issue show up for him at the ballot box.

I really worry that he won't be able to sustain the momentum he's had since last month. Stories like this are hard to get over, but Obama should be credit for not throwing people under the bus because that would contradict his message of "change."

And thank you for stalking the blog too! :-)

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NVB,

Welcome back to the blog! You remind me of a common Huckabee line: "Leadership comes from the bottom up, not the top down." That's not quite what you're saying, but it just reminded me of the quote. Obama should be given credit for talking to voters like they are intelligent beings. And they are. The problem is, however, that a lot of other voters are anything but that. These are the people who equated criticizing Bush with not liking America, and speaking French with being worth ridicule. I still maintain that people's reactions to speeches is more important than people's understanding of them, so I think the jury's still out on what the aftermath of the speech will be. It was a great speech, obviously, but will it yield great political results? At what point do moral victories not mean anything?

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RHW,

I think the question many voters will have is why he didn't switch churches or at the least challenge the pastor. I think that's unfair because I believe one's faith should be private, but those questions will undoubtedly dog him for awhile.

Religion + Politics = Disaster

Obama was doomed either way though. Changing churches would make him seem like a political opportunist. Dropping out of all churches would make him seem like an athiest (whch is silly). I would like to think that his critics would commend him for being strong with his faith (20 years!), but I guess there's no satisfying some people.

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Nikki,

You are right. Bill Clinton gave a very, very powerful quote: "There's nothing wrong with America can't be cured by what's right with America." The problem is, Obama kinda got forced into having to give this speech. And it's hard to talk about race without talking about where the races have been. I think Obama has given enough speeches talking about the greatness of America. The beauty of his speech is that he's challenging us to get our negatives on this issue out in the open and attempt to at least respect our differences.

Thanks a lot for the great comments and for keeping everything civil here. You guys are great.

Nikki said...

Reginald, I am sorry I didn't make myself clear. I was speaking in general in the quote you referred to. He didn't make me feel that way in his speech, just generally speaking. The optimistic message in Obama's campaign is negative to the already good and decent americans who are indeed good without political admonishment. To me his message sounds as though we are doomed without him. Hope and change in challenging times always resonates with many, but inside the words of optimism is a message of dependancy upon a greater power, namely Obama. The message is ultimately negative. At least to me it is. Perhaps the inspiration people are lacking should be found elsewhere and not in the form of a politician. This country is obviously starved for something to believe in and it isn't going to come from Washington. I don't care who you are, the government isn't responsible for the hope in our lives. They are merely there to make sure that we are not trampled on while seeking out what will ultimately satisfy our souls. Obama to me markets himself too powerful and inspirational. While I think these talents can be used as a politician, it can go too far and promote an emotional connection to an otherwise political figure. :)Nikki

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

Nikki,

Good points:)

I think we should all realize that inspiration and optimism are actually bedrock catalysts that spurred the US's foundation on life and liberty in the 18th Century. All Presidential Candidates--including all of them this year--want to inspire and be optimistic. I would not vote for any candidate who was not like this.

In order to be beacon in darkness and lead, you must inspire and be optimistic because either other people are not that way or they do not know HOW to be that way. All, for example, students do not make A's in schools only because they don't study. Some of them do not make A's because they don't know how to study or because they were never taught how to study.

Again, I'm not sure how inspriational and optimistic messages can be negative to good and decent Americans who are good without political admonishment. I really do not think those persons have anything to worry about or feel bad about. If I'm in a classroom and the teacher admonishes the entire the class because of the impropriety of other students, why should I feel bad? It doesn't apply to me. Again, I wonder why such decent and good Americans do not feel good that they are doing what others are being admonished for not doing. Baffling.

Honestly, I think it is unfair to say that Obama thinks that he believes we are doomed without him. I doubt he, Clinton, McCain, Bush, Paul, or any other decent politician (and they all are decent) would say something or imply something as arrogant as that. Mainly because it simply isn't true: everyone is replaceable.

I do not agree that inside optimistic messages and words is a dependency on a greater power...unless you're talking about God. Again, I doubt that Obama or any other politician would make this claim because it is simply not accurate; they are not God or super human. Dependency is a personal thorn. I think it is cynical and unfair of us to uniformly say that optimism engenders it. What actually engenders it, in my opinion, is our own lack of self-esteem. Each person is internally responsible for their pessimistic or optimistic viewpoint and where they get it from. Personally, I will always love a politician (Democrat, GOP, etc.) or anyone who sees life as a glass of wine that is half full rather than half empty.

Some people, Nikki, have lived within a culture where they DO believe the Government is responsible for the hope in their lives or the lack thereof. I work with homeless families on a regular basis. They see government as their lifeline because society has failed them. Other groups are immigrants, poverty stricken families, and people with mental/physical disabilities. I think we must be careful with these statements. We have not walked in everyone's shoes. Many people see the Government as very much an integral part of whether they float or sink. I cannot say it is right or wrong because I cannot see life from outside their eyes.

Again, I'm not sure how you believe that Obama markets himself as so powerful and inspirational. I think he is just a profound speaker who wants to inspire the people. Again, I doubt whether he or any other politician will be so bold as to think that they wrote the book on power and inspiration, yet all of them want to inspire people more than their opponents so that they can make the arguement that they are the better voting choice.

Again, this is why Obama is unique person because he invites conversations like the ones we are having. We do not have these conversations about Richardson or Condi Rice or McCain or Edwards or even Colin Powell. Obama is not like John Lewis or Clarence Thomas or Jesse Jackson or Julian Bond. His combination of superlatives might disorient us because we have not experienced anything like this.

For better or worst (and I'm not sure which way it is leaning), Obama has rewritten the book on how to be a Presidential candidate.

Excellent Post,
Reggie:)

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