March 19, 2008

A More Perfect Union

A lot of the country is talking about Barack Obama's speech last night addressing the controversy over statements made by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who is the former pastor of Mr. Obama's church. The video is above; for those who are more textual, you can see the full text here. Obama was forced to explain his relationship with Wright after Wright said "God damn America" in a sermon and said that the U.S. had provoked 9/11.

The coverage on this speech has been mostly positive. Obama has been praised for his courage, and though some feel that the speech may not have gone far enough, there is general agreement that Obama succeeded in pushing the envelope on dialogue about race. We love risk-takers, and Obama made a risky move by addressing a subject that easily could become a liability. His manner of addressing the topic was also extremely risky: he maintained his personal support for Wright while expressing disapproval of his comments, something that members of the church community didn't want to hear; he placed his view of Wright in a historical context, something that conservatives hate to hear; he said that black Americans have to adopt more "conservative" values by focusing on "self-help," something that liberals hate to hear; and he said that whites have to acknowledge that racism is real, something that a lot of white people don't like to hear. He addressed the issues without pandering to anyone.

Now I have personally been an Obama supporter since the early days of the campaign, but I haven't been one of those die-hard supporters who thinks he's the Second Coming. I was disappointed when he signed the 80/20 questionnaire, and I thought it was an extreme misstep when Obama declared he was going negative after Ohio and Texas, especially given that he had marketed himself as the change candidate. His "Audacity of Hope" was more boring than a real estate sales contract.

But one thing that is clear from the speech yesterday is that Obama has the ability to connect with people across the racial divide. He has a strong ability to see what groups need to do, and he knows how to integrate it into a message that unifies disparate people in moving towards a common goal. He has a strong understanding of the racial issues that sets him apart from the other two candidates, and most importantly, he has the ability to communicate this understanding and translate it into change. I think this is what the country needs.

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