Obama Spoke, But Was He Heard?

Washington Matters

Obama Spoke, But Was He Heard?

Barack Obama launched his national political career with one speech and turbocharged his stalled campaign in Iowa with another. He gave a third compelling and deeply personal speech Tuesday to address his long association with a minister who made racially provocative comments from the pulpit. But was it enough?

That depends upon how much voters are willing to really listen.

The problem Obama faces is that his greatest strength -- using his eloquence to create a picture of an America no longer divided and pitted against each other by race, class, party, religion and geography -- is also his largest vulnerability. Except for campaign slogans such as "Yes we can!" Obama does not campaign or speak in easily digestible sound bites. Nor does he usually rely on that other common political crutch of portraying a given issue or situation in black and white terms.

Rather, he builds a case painstakenly, lacing together history, personal experience, current conflict and his personal vision of a politics of hope. That's exactly what he did Tuesday. Of course he denounced the Rev. Jeremiah Wright for comments that Obama said were offensive to whites and blacks alike. But he also used those remarks to explain the rage and fear of many in the black community -- and he used his own white grandmother to remind people that the white community had its own racial fears and anxieties.

Perhaps most striking of all, Obama used the furor over Wright's comments to illustrate and reinforce the overarching theme of his campaign -- overcoming the politics of division and partisanship -- and to issue a challenge to the country. Rather than unleash a litany of attacks and counterattacks, "at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.' This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.

When Obama first made a name for himself nationally, it was when he gave the keynote address of the Democratic convention in 2004. His unique history, message and engaging speaking style energized Democrats and caught the attention of the news media. When he gave a fiery speech in Iowa that had even supporters of Hillary Clinton on their feet cheering, it revived interest in him by the Democratic stalwarts who watch politics closely. But in this speech, Obama is speaking to a national audience -- a general election audience, really, because the Wright issue is sure to be a staple of GOP attack ads. 

And most voters are accustomed to getting their politics in spoonfuls of images and catch phrases crafted carefully by the campaigns and boiled down to digestible chunks by the news media. They're not accustomed to hearing and thinking through long, nuanced speeches. In fact, in a country where far more people can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government, many are simply not accustomed to thinking much about politics  at all. And if people can't really hear Obama's explanation of how he can dismiss and despise comments by Wright but cannot reject the man as a whole, Obama and the country are bound to suffer the fate he described in his speech: "We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day ... and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card," he said. "... "But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one."

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