Obama’s Speech: Poisoning the Well
One of the major strains of reaction to Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech is that those who are not persuaded by it are therefore racist or at least unreasoning fools. Poisoning the well in this manner may be an effective rhetorical device but it undercuts the very message of the speech, which is that race remains a very complicated issue in American culture and that we must tolerate a wide range of expressions on the subject.
Andrew Sullivan began sowing the race seed before the speech and after it adds “some are immune to the grace and hope and civility that Reagan summoned at his best; the anger and bitterness is so palpably fueled by fear and racism it really does mark a moment of revelation to me.”
Steve M. argues that “the premises [the speech] lays out require you to be an adult, and I’m not convinced that most Americans are adults, at least when looking for a candidate to support.”
Barbara O’Brien seconds this:
I think the question about the speech, articulated by Rachel Maddow on David Gregory’s new MSNBC program, is whether white America will step up and receive the speech in the same spirit in which it was given. Obama’s speech was challenging. He assumed that his audience could hear his words and and think about them. He assumed people could get beyond simple narratives, sound bytes, and jerking knees.
Glenn Greenwald adds,
But in Obama’s faith in the average American voter lies one of the greatest weaknesses of his campaign. His faith in the ability and willingness of Americans to rise above manipulative political tactics seems drastically to understate both the efficacy of such tactics and the deafening amplification they receive from our establishment press. Even Americans who authentically believe that they want a “new, better politics” may be swayed by the same old Drudgian sewerage because it is powerful and ubiquitous.
Finally, Michael Froomkin observes, “whether this is Obama’s breakthrough moment, as it deserves to be, or his Adlai Stevenson moment depends on two things: first, whether the gatekeepers of old media, few if any of whom are friendly to Democrats, allow his rich and complex statements anywhere near a voter. . . . The second chance comes from the Internet, which allows the candidate to bypass the filter. But will anyone outside the choir come to hear the preacher?
Now, I think all of these writers are expressing their honest frustration that Obama’s message won’t get through. And, fundamentally, I agree that it’s difficult to make an argument in paragraph form in a venue dominated by the sound byte. At the same time, however, it’s difficult to argue that people interested in hearing or reading Obama’s speech don’t have plenty of avenues for doing so.
The fact that we live in a sound byte world requires that those wishing to get their message out adapt their strategy accordingly. Obama has done so masterfully. Indeed, he’s light years ahead of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain in this regard. While he has detailed policy platforms available to those who want them, he’s built his campaign around bumper sticker slogans. That frustrates those who are trying to beat him with more nuanced messages but that’s too bad.
Unless he’s a much dumber tactician than I give him credit for, Obama knew full well that yesterday morning’s speech was merely the beginning of a dialog. Even those of us who are political junkies mostly missed the live presentation, given that it was delivered during peak working hours. But opinion leaders have or will read and/or listen to the speech and talk about it for the next week or more.
Like Greenwald, I viewed the Wright controversy as “relatively petty.” But others have the right to disagree.
Obama’s youth, energy, charisma, and oratorical skill could easily propel him to the White House. I wouldn’t be shocked if he won several states that went “Red” in 2000 and 2004 and thus contributed to a realignment of American politics. But a personality based campaign can implode if people doubt the character of the candidate. Fundamentally, this is a visceral issue rather than an intellectual one. Either you trust Obama and regard him as a uniting force or you don’t. And falling into the latter camp doesn’t make you venal or stupid.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum disagrees on two scores:
As good as Obama’s speech was, it’s naive not to also understand it as the political tool it was meant to be. And on that score, I’d say that the Obama supporters James points to are doing precisely what Obama intended: trying to take Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary comments off the table by implying that anyone who still insists on talking about them must be either a simpleton or a racist. He’s basically daring the Sean Hannitys of the world to continue demagoging Wright, and making a savvy bet that the rest of the press will line up behind him to agree that the real issue isn’t Wright, it’s racism and its complex historical legacy. And anyone who doesn’t agree is either a partisan hack or a hopeless primitive.
If so, it’s a losing bet. Calling half the country simpletons and racists is not a way to win an election. It may stifle the debate, because of the powerful chilling effect of the race card in American political discourse, but it’ll resonate quite differently in the privacy of the voting booth.
Obama has embraced Wright while distancing himself from his most incendiary comments. That’s fine. But people have a right not to be satisfied with a very convoluted explanation about why he sat in those pews for two decades.
On James’s second point, though, I disagree. I think Obama’s fervent hope is that his speech pretty much closes the issue of race in this campaign. It just flatly doesn’t help him in any way to keep it on the front burner. Like NAFTA, which dropped off the radar after Ohio, I expect that after a couple of days Obama will also drop the subject of race if he possibly can. We’ll know by next week.
I can’t predict media cycles. Issues come and go and the press often drops them in mid story if distracted, never to return again. (See: Levy, Chandra.) Then again, this is a political campaign. Obama’s opponents certainly have a stake in seeing this one live on.