The Obama Speech
03-19-2008
I have spent much of the past twenty-four hours absorbing reaction to Barack Obama’s speech on race and politics yesterday. Whatever his personal reasons for delivering the speech, politically Obama needed to win over the mainstream media (and associated political observers), in order to put a stop to the endless looping of Rev. Wright video on television. My sense is that the media was looking for a reason to move this story forward, with some sort of new angle or fresh information, and a strong speech by Obama would provide impetus for more positive reportage.
 
Judging by the tenor of subsequent media coverage, Obama appears to have cleared this threshold, at least initially. I am intentionally a bit tentative here, as it will be some time before we can accurately assess the true impact of the speech on the Rev. Wright controversy. Also, I know from years of watching politics that with these kinds of political firestorms, you just never know what new development might suddenly pop up to set things off again. Still, initial response to the speech has generally been positive, even among some conservatives. That does not mean that critics will stop using the issue as a political bludgeon anytime soon. But yesterday’s speech was not really about placating conservative critics, or about preempting their ability to use the issue tactically in the general election. It will surely be used, irrespective of the actual content of Obama’s speech.
 
The main political objective of the speech (other than reshaping the stagnant news cycle) was instead two-fold. Obama needed to reassure African-American voters that even under extreme political pressure, he would not abandon Rev. Wright and the African-American community (while repudiating the words). And, it was essential that Obama also shore up support among white collar progressive voters, who might be concerned that their confidence in his vision is misplaced. On these two counts, the speech will be judged a success. Without these two core groups of voters firmly behind him, Obama can pretty much forget about building any sort of broader electoral coalition in November.
 
I have heard some commentators express concern that the speech was not pitched in a way that could win over blue collar Democrats, a group of voters with whom Obama has underperformed in the primaries, and who are also sometimes depicted as harboring underlying racial resentments. In the end, while it may open a dialogue, I don’t think that the speech was designed primarily to win over these voters. Obama will have to do that by other means, through retail politics and a strong economic message, in places like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana.  It will take a sustained grassroots effort by Obama to reduce any racial antipathy to an African-American candidate that might exist among these working class Democrats.


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