Obama speech: Effective for a narrow audience

posted at 12:02 pm on March 18, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

Barack Obama has delivered his major speech on race — and in some parts, he spoke effectively. His observations on the ongoing anger and frustrations in both white and black communities will resonate to some degree, but other portions called into question the behavior of his own campaign in the last couple of weeks. It was probably enough, however, to succeed with its target audience.

First, let’s focus on the main reason for the speech. Obama needed to distance himself from the incendiary remarks of Jeremiah Wright, his pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ for the last 20 years. Did he do that? Not really:

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

It’s essentially a non-distancing distancing, akin to the non-apology apology. He excuses Wright’s anti-American rhetoric with a mixture of rationalizations. Wright gets a pass because he served in the military, because he grew up in another generation that apparently hated America, and because he does good work in other areas. Obama also makes the curious claim that rejecting Wright means rejecting the entire black community — something other black churches might see as rather presumptuous. Obama essentially argues that the same kind of anti-Americanism can be found in all black churches, and speaks at length about how the legacy of racism and Jim Crow makes this incendiary rhetoric ubiquitous.

Is that true? Hardly. Black ministers have flocked to the airwaves over the last few days to vehemently deny that kind of argument. However, Obama has little choice but to argue this, because he needs to cast his situation as having little choice in spiritual venues.

The nadir of the speech came in this passage about Geraldine Ferraro:

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

Some have dismissed Ferraro? Perhaps Obama needs a reminder that it was his campaign that shrieked for Ferraro’s scalp for pointing out how his ancestry has affected the primary campaign. Ferraro didn’t say anything that Obama didn’t say in this speech. And yet the Obama campaign demanded that Hillary repudiate Ferraro in exactly the manner that Obama decried in his speech — and that just happened last week.

Hypocrisy? You bet, and by the cartload.

Other parts of his speech were more effective, especially in describing the black perspective on the continuing effects of racism and segregation. The lack of economic opportunities during Jim Crow did handicap black families from gaining wealth and passing it along to their children. Even with the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s and their subsequent enforcement, the black community still faced a large disadvantage in education, resources, and access. Affirmative Action turned out to be an imperfect way to address those disparities, and they created a great deal of legitimate resentment among whites who had never offended, which Obama also acknowledges. It’s a nuanced and incisive look into the heart of the racial divide we now face.

Did Obama succeed with this speech in containing the damage? It depends on the intended audience. This speech appears aimed at 795 specific individuals — Democratic superdelegates. Obama needed to show that he can address the racial issues in an inclusive manner, and walk the highwire with Wright by scolding him without alienating the black community. While the delivery was uncharacteristically lethargic, the content probably made the sale.

Unfortunately, he left himself still vulnerable by stubbornly refusing to ‘disown’ Wright; if anything else more incendiary comes up, he will have to address this all over again. He didn’t inoculate himself against future revelations, which is one of the main purposes of these kinds of speeches. We’ll see if that gamble pays off.

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Obama – “I will move this country beyond race, but if you don’t elect me it’s because you’re racist.”

Django on March 18, 2008 at 4:18 PM

jim m on March 18, 2008 at 3:32 PM

Thanks for the background jim.

allrsn on March 18, 2008 at 4:20 PM

There’s a smoking gun in this speech–he admitted he’d listened to Wright’s racist anti-semitic and anti-American rants in church and ‘disagreed’ with them. In silence. Then he proceeded to praise Wright with faint damns.

The man is, like Hillary, a monster of ambition. We now know all we need to.

Hope P. Muntz on March 18, 2008 at 4:34 PM

All that trolls require to succeed is that good men go along with their diversions.

Merovign on March 18, 2008 at 4:35 PM

i can sum up his 45 minute speech in under a minute:

‘ I went to this church and associated with the Rev. for the same reason I’m making this address…to get votes.”

it’s not a question of his believing in what Wright said, it is a cold and calculated move to get elected in Chicago. he has no core. he is an empty suit.

coondawg on March 18, 2008 at 4:40 PM

Who or what is a Hagee?

allrsn on March 18, 2008 at 2:35 PM

An unhealthy sandwich made mostly of fat.

Drum on March 18, 2008 at 5:01 PM

Why was he speaking like that? There was no fire in the belly at all. This tells me it pained him greatly to do this.

SouthernGent on March 18, 2008 at 6:41 PM

amerpundit on March 18, 2008 at 1:21 PM

Hagee is “non-denominational”.

McCain is Baptist formerly Episcopalian(In the 90’s)

The Hagee’s College could be considered “Presbyterian”, though his church is “non-denominational”

Trinity University (Texas)

Chakra Hammer on March 18, 2008 at 7:29 PM

“Why was he speaking like that? There was no fire in the belly at all. This tells me it pained him greatly to do this.”
SouthernGent on March 18, 2008 at 6:41 PM

Agreed. This was the sound of a beaten man. The intonation and rhythm lacked all that accompanied his earlier “famous oratory.” Not to mention that the “logic” (sic – but it’s the closest thing a Democrat can come to it) was rambling all over the place.

Lockstein13 on March 18, 2008 at 7:32 PM


You’re dashing Excitable Andy’s hopes, dreams, and pride at this historical moment.

Shame on you.

misterpeasea on March 18, 2008 at 9:02 PM

I just counted 11 active topics concerning Obama as I type this.

Is HA catching the feevah? Just asking…

Hog Wild on March 18, 2008 at 9:20 PM

Barack Obama’s address on Race today in Philadelphia was a desperate bid to save his presidential prospects in the light of release of videotapes of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. While much of the mainstream media has tried to downplay the story, Obama had obviously come to the conclusion that it was major news-and it was threatening to kill his campaign. While reactions to the speech are still playing out, I would like to comment on my reaction at this time.

Without repeating the various lines in his speech, suffice to say that, like most of his speeches, Obama’s prepared remarks today were typically eloquent-especially in contrast to when he is answering questions on uncomfortable topics-as he was this week on the TV news circuit. The problem with the speech was, as I see it, that he tried to appeal to everyone, and, in the process, may have alienated everyone with the obvious exception of those who choose to believe and accept whatever he says because he is their guy.

Obama, while condemning Wright’s remarks, stated that he could no longer disown the pastor any more than he could disown the black community. Personally, I am not sure the two are linked. I sure hope not although Wright’s parishioners have spoken out loud and clear in their support of him. Is Obama the only member of the church who rejects Wright’s sentiments?

Obama also reiterated the racial grievances of black Americans and made the usual calls for racial healing. Obama obviously felt he had to give something to his black listeners and speak of injustice. No question, Obama is walking a very thin tightrope here, trying to hold on to wavering white voters while not alienating black voters who may conclude he is an “Uncle Tom” (a ugly term also used by Wright in some of his sermons).

Obama spoke of Wright’s good works and good qualities, stating that he will not turn his back on him. He also referred to his white grandmother, who allegedly referred to her fears of encountering black men on the street. He also acknowledged that he had, indeed, been in the pews on occasions when Wright made “controversial” statements. This is an apparent contradiction from statements he had been making just in the past few days to the effect that he had not been present during these particular diatribes. (Is it possible Obama realized that there may be some video out there showing him in the audience on these occasions-perhaps doing what everyone else was apparently doing-standing, clapping and cheering?)

It appears that Obama’s theme is that, yes, he disagrees with Wright’s statements about whites and America, but that he will not turn away from his spiritual mentor and his church. America must deal with black historical grievances and present-day “real anger”, but he wants to bring about racial conciliation. In other words, Obama’s speech had something in it for everyone, just what a politician’s speech is supposed to be.

I still am left with serious questions about Mr Obama:

First, how could you sit there in that church for two decades and listen to this rhetoric and racial diatribes. Senator Obama, when Minister Wright was railing about white people, he was talking about your mother-and grandmother. Did you never take offense at that?

You talk about your love of this country. Yet, you sat there and listened to the worst things being said about your country by Wright. I don’t know about you, sir, but I would have gotten up and walked out of my church and never gone back if the pastor talked like that about America-or about other ethnic groups not my own. But you, sir, are a sitting US Senator. If nothing else, as a US Senator and aspiring presidential candidate, what kind of judgement does this show? The same kind of judgement that allowed you to do business with a character like Tony Rezko?

Already, many news commentators sympathetic to Obama are raving about the eloquence of his speech. It is spin. The fact of the matter is that in attempting to please all sides, in my view, Obama has hurt his cause only more. As I acknowledged above, Obama is caught squarely in the middle of the racial divide in this country. He doesn’t want to be regarded as simply the “Black Candidate”, rather one who cuts across racial barriers. Sadly, that is going by the wayside very quickly. I don’t know how the senator is going to reconcile these issues. Certainly many white voters who are wavering wanted Obama to cut his ties to Wright and the church in strong and forceful terms. To do so, however, would have alienated many black voters. So he tried to cut it both ways. I don’t think it will work.

I don’t know if Obama secretely sympathizes with Wright’s views; I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. His continued membership in such a church and association with Wright would make any reasonable person suspicious. What is really sad and ironic is that the candidate and the campaign that held out hope of advancing black-white relations in America to so many, even among his opponents, is now turning into something that, in the end, may only set relations back.

All of the above, of course, is written from the perspective of a white male in his 60s who probably doesn’t understand what goes on in black churches and has possibly deluded himself into thinking that over the course of his life, he had seen dramatic racial progress. All I can say is that if Jeremiah Wright is typical, then we have made very little progress. If there is actually someone out there who can bring Americans together, that person is not going to come out of the Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago.

So is there a secret side to Mr Obama that he has tried to hide from the public? I don’t know, but one thing is becoming more obvious every day.

Barack Obama is just another politician.

gary fouse

gary fouse on March 18, 2008 at 10:18 PM

Agreed. This was the sound of a beaten man. The intonation and rhythm lacked all that accompanied his earlier “famous oratory.” Not to mention that the “logic” (sic – but it’s the closest thing a Democrat can come to it) was rambling all over the place.

Lockstein13 on March 18, 2008 at 7:32 PM

He knew better than to fall into that black preacher rising/falling intensity, sing song cadence that has been so effective in his previous oratory. He learned his style from Wright and was too smart to use it today in these circumstances, although I saw flashes when he forgot himself and lapsed.

a capella on March 18, 2008 at 11:31 PM

I agree that he is spinning to save his backside. What gets me is his denial of not knowing where a man he considred his mentor, his friend, his spirtial advisor and who was placed on his web page before all eles, conviction and beliefs lay.
A few months ago I listen to the current preacher at the church that I raised my daughter in, make statements from the pulpit that I strongly did not agree with. There is no hope that the preacher will change her perversion of gods word, so I did what I needed to do and left the church that I too had spent the last twenty years attending. Obama had that option, as well a the option to join any other church of his chooseing white or black. He choose to stay and in doing so, agreed with the views of the church, which apparently from the maninfest on the churches web site, was no secret. The views esposed by Michelle certainly say that she and presumably Barack were present and well aware of Wrights views and preachings. After twenty years, he can not simply claim to have distanced himself and say that he also distanced himself from all the views he accepted with the association.

Franklyn on March 18, 2008 at 11:56 PM

Not to be a broken record, but I STILL haven’t heard a soul address with Obama why he never (apparently) made any effort to bridge his differences with his ‘crazy uncle’? If we are to believe the rhetoric that Barry is the agent of change who will bring us all together shouldn’t we at least expect him to have tried to temper the racist, anti-semitic, hate mongering going on at his own church? And if he did, what does it say about his ability to affect change if the good reverand can not be swayed by his soaring oratory?
What a fraud

StuCon on March 19, 2008 at 12:14 AM

The man is, like Hillary, a monster of ambition. We now know all we need to.

Hope P. Muntz on March 18, 2008 at 4:34 PM

Heck, anyone can see that. He’s running for the highest elected office in the land in is first term as a Senator.

eanax on March 19, 2008 at 12:21 AM

Barry don’st likes him some whiteys. specially thoz righty whiteys.

Griz on March 19, 2008 at 1:42 AM

If it hasn’t occurred to anybody yet, it might have been nicer to have this revelation AFTER he was the candidate when it would be a poison pill for the whole the Democratic party.

I want to also note I am getting tired of this Ohamagasm everybody is having.


herself on March 19, 2008 at 2:44 AM

It is clear. Either we vote for Barack, because only he can end racism, or we “run to John McCain” and maintain our racist past. He has framed it as an either/or situation and the MSM is buying into it. I don’t like Barack and I am not a racist. My grandparents came over here after slavery ended. I never heard my grandmother, grandfather,mother or father utter a single racist comment. But I am white so I guess that makes me a racist.

oldorch on March 19, 2008 at 8:15 AM

Why was he speaking like that? There was no fire in the belly at all. This tells me it pained him greatly to do this.

SouthernGent on March 18, 2008 at 6:41 PM

Obama always speaks in non-commital tones and broken sentences. I’ve already noted that he is NOT a great orator, and those who’ve posted that he is are full of BS propaganda. Regardless of topic, it’s the same delivery every time from Obama; just look at his long and lengthy delivery of his “Joshua Generation” speech online. IN THIS ‘MUTED’ UNDERTONE Obama has been coached to avoid the tantrum theatrics at all costs. He is not a monotone, that is not what I’ve said; but his vocal registry remains mezzo, non-commital and never forte, let alone fortissimo. In the mezzo range, he would have himself appear thoughtful and respectful. He would faux Empfindsamkeit soon enough if his wife’s tears aren’t sufficient, we’ll see his own to prove his “compassion” for intolerance. It’s all part of the political act to get converts to believe him. Anything goes. All’s fair in love and war. Nothing personal, it’s business. Yadah…

It is as if Obama took coaching lessons from GWBush in timing and from Wright in enunciation. There again, the amalgamation of extremes wrapped up in the Obama boxed suit and tie. Plenty of fodder for Fox MAD comedy routines. But never hold your breath.

maverick muse on March 19, 2008 at 10:31 AM

Red Pill, good link-read.

maverick muse on March 19, 2008 at 10:36 AM

Captain, hope you’re feeling better today.

BTW, Laura Ingraham mentions, as does Sean Hannity, that Christians can choose their minister. Sorry to mention it in parting, but bear in mind, Mormons can not. Mormons must attend according to their local geographical WARD, within it’s STAKE and REGION. Church attendance is mandatory within one’s geographical Ward under the auspices of whoever General Authorities designate as leaders chosen by direct revelation from God. But then, the Popes have denounced Statism regardless of locale, and Pope John Paul II pronounced that the Catholic Church formally does not accept Mormon baptism. It doesn’t matter how, Obama links the most disparate elements into public dialogue. Though Obama COULD CHOOSE his minister, as it is and has been, Romney can not.

maverick muse on March 19, 2008 at 10:50 AM

There must be over fifty thousand
Screaming love and more for you
Everyone of fifty thousand
Would do whatever you ask him to
Keep them yelling their devotion
But add a touch of hate at Rome
You will rise to a greater power
We will win ourselves a home
You’ll get the power and the glory
For ever and ever and ever
Amen! Amen!


TooTall on March 19, 2008 at 11:36 AM

Is just me, or does BO look like he is totally jonesing for a cigarette in the picture for this thread?

Branch Rickey on March 19, 2008 at 7:11 PM

Sorry to mention it in parting, but bear in mind, Mormons can not. Mormons must attend according to their local geographical WARD, within it’s STAKE and REGION. Church attendance is mandatory within one’s geographical Ward under the auspices of whoever General Authorities designate as leaders chosen by direct revelation from God. maverick muse on March 19, 2008 at 10:50 AM

Not to according to my Mormon neighbor. Veiled attempt to swipe at Gov. Romney not true. The Mormon missions are true.

Branch Rickey on March 19, 2008 at 7:15 PM

The 2008 election is over. The libs are now stuck with Obama who has no shot at winning whatsoever.

echosyst on March 19, 2008 at 11:36 PM