Can you give a State of the Union address before you’re president? Barack Obama talked about race in America for 45 minutes in a nearly 5,000-word speech. That was longer than some of the annual presidential addresses, and though, yes, those speeches tend to cover more topics, this one felt like it addressed the actual state of our union more than those dreary January list readings presidents are obligated to perform.
The speech was deeply personal. Barack Obama is America. He contains multitudes. He started with the contradiction in the Constitution that celebrated freedom but allowed slavery and continued embracing and exploring contradictions throughout—from his own complex heritage to the complex makeup of the black church to the white immigrant experience. All of this was in the service of addressing the contradiction that threatens to derail his campaign: how he can embrace his former pastor and denounce him at the same time.
Can Obama’s speech of so many words blot out the YouTube videos of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright saying “God damn America“? It probably can’t as a blunt political matter. Obama didn’t answer Wright’s rebuke with an equally hot riposte. The speech failed to address head-on Wright’s damning of America or any of his other remarks about 9/11 or AIDS. Obama asked for points for political courage for not abandoning Wright, and he should get them. Abandonment would have been more expedient. White blue-collar men in Pennsylvania would have applauded shoving Wright over, and his rock-solid black supporters probably would have understood. But Obama’s courage didn’t extend to directly taking on the words that have caused such controversy.
Instead, Obama was cool and reasoned. At times he sounded like he was giving a graduate lecture in need of editing both for length and tone. He didn’t need to refer to Geraldine Ferraro twice. His speech was flying at 30,000 feet, and the dip to the crass political level didn’t feel right. It also seemed like a cheap attempt to loop Wright and Ferraro with the same lasso, suggesting a moral equivalence between a former congresswoman’s stupid remarks and the stone-cold preaching of hate. Obama should have known that’s how it would sound. For a candidate who promises to reach across the aisle, Obama also probably didn’t help himself with Republicans by arguing that Ronald Reagan profited from the white anger equivalent to the black anger that gave rise to Wright’s remarks.
Still, if you’re a Democrat, I imagine Obama’s speech probably made you feel like you wanted him to be the one you cheer on the convention stage in Denver. Hillary Clinton has been claiming that his candidacy amounts to “just words”—and making a pretty good case for it. Today was a speech, too, of course, but it also showed the power of language to move people to common understanding and to persuade, a key presidential trait. It touched on a highly sensitive subject with art and skill and called listeners to the same kind of collective action that Obama has successfully sold all throughout the campaign. Even if you didn’t buy everything he said, you might be impressed with a person who can take on such a subject so quickly with such scope. Obama managed to chart the topography of the black church and failures within the African-American community as well as put his finger on the elements of anger that exist in the white community. Remember also that he did all of this while in the middle of a sleep-stealing, gut-punching presidential campaign, which is like writing the speech while riding backward on a flaming unicycle.
Obama made several deft pivots in the speech, first seeking to put Wright’s remarks in context of the black experience without excusing them and then pinpointing the sense of permanent grievance that will always hold those with Wright’s views back. It was an attempt to go beyond simply condemning him but to understand and learn from his paralysis. He then sought to do the same for white anger about African-Americans. It was bold and risky in a way that Obama often claims for his candidacy but rarely achieves, and we got a glimpse of how his attempt to bring people together works in practice rather than merely having to take on faith his assertion that he can do so.
He closed his remarks just as expertly with a moving story about a volunteer’s selflessness—first in dealing with her cancer-stricken mother and then by devoting her life to helping others—that will likely make “I’m here because of Ashley” a rallying cry for his campaign. I found myself wanting to find Ashley and thank her.
The penultimate clever pivot was maybe too clever, though. In his speech, Obama decried the YouTube era of politics that reduces everyone to small, grainy clips endlessly replayed on cable news. But if it wasn’t for the replaying of Wright’s remarks on YouTube, Obama wouldn’t have been forced to give the speech on race in the first place. (He ducked a question about Wright during one of the last debates.) And yet if he’s claiming the speech as a great act of political courage, then why did he need YouTube to bring it about? This is making a virtue out of necessity, I suppose, but it also seems like he’s claiming too much credit for himself.
We have a choice, Obama said, about the kind of politics we practice. How we behave next will be a test of whether we will accept a “politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism” or demand something new. That’s what he’s been preaching all along, so when he warned against continuing to fixate on Wright’s remarks and slicing and dicing exit polls for racial data, it seemed like he was calling voters, the press, and his opponents to join him up on the high road he’s been riding for a year. But in his list of bad political behavior, he included pouncing “on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card.” It was his campaign that raced to the airwaves to jump on a Drudge Report item about a supposed Clinton staffer supposedly passing around a picture of Obama. And it was his staffers who made the most of Geraldine Ferraro’s remarks. Obama didn’t come out and say that, though, and so in a speech with lots of first pronouns, he missed a chance to talk in a needed way about his own falling short of his standards. It was another contradiction.