|On March 18, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama delivered a speech on race in America. Stephen Schneck , associate professor of politics, contributed his opinion of the speech to an online Time magazine article that same day. To view his comments, see the story below.|
From: Time Date: March 18, 2008 Author: Jay Newton-Small Larry SabatoDirector of the Center for PoliticsUniversity of Virginia
It's indisputable that this was a serious speech about the incendiary topic of race in America. Obama was performing his high-wire act, trying to appear black enough for the African-American community and post-racial enough for white voters. That's as tough a task as exists in American politics, and one speech alone will never accomplish it. But if he is to win the nomination and the general election, he has to engage voters in this dialogue, and the sooner the better. He's started down that road, and he has to continue. Whether he likes it or not, and whether Americans generally like it or not, race is a big part of this election, and it has been at least since the election result in New Hampshire.
From Obama's perspective, it's much better to have this discussion now. In fact, the debate about race was inevitable at some point. I would argue that race isn't just another issue; it is THE issue of American history. He actually needs to have the racial debate continue until it exhausts the media and the electorate as a whole. If he has to confront racial division in October in a major way, he will lose the election. By October, he needs to have the media and voters say, "We've already finished with this subject. What about Iraq? What about the economy?"
Thomas MannSenior FellowBrookings Institution
An extraordinary speech - not because of any rhetorical flourishes, but because it was honest, frank, measured in tone, inclusive and hopeful. I don't know whether it will be sufficient to stem a racial backlash against his candidacy, but he clearly demonstrated today his capacity to lead public opinion and not simply be a slave to it. Indeed, I would say he appeared wise beyond his years and genuinely presidential.
Donald F. KettlRobert A. Fox Leadership ProfessorUniversity of Pennsylvania
It was a stirring speech that reached back to the founding in Philadelphia but then also challenged everyone to continue to move forward in the future. It was truly a transcendent speech and a remarkable piece of oratory. Obama made a few excursions across the racial divide, to connect the concerns of black Americans with the needs of unemployed white men and underemployed white women. He also focused on the need for self-help, which was an indirect challenge to an earlier generation of welfare policies.
Rather than put race behind him, he put it more at the center of the campaign. The strategy is clear: if a whispering campaign on race threatened problems for his campaign and disunity for the country, better to attack the issue head-on and then try to redefine it. He brought it back around to his central theme of change and folded the black experience into his broader message. It's a stunning effort: both to expose the seamy elements of racism to public view and to redefine the issue for the future as the challenge of building opportunity. The bigger challenge is whether the message will resonate with white working class Pennsylvanians, especially white men who have proven one of the toughest political nuts for the Obama campaign to crack. That's a much bigger problem, and it will take time to sort out how this speech plays out against centuries of racial tensions that have been part of Pennsylvania politics. After all, there's one town - York - that surrendered to the South before the battle of Gettysburg, and the mayor of Hazelton has campaigned on immigration in a way that has carried racial overtones.
The more Obama can more on from here to couple his portrait of race to the broader challenge of economic opportunity, the more he'll bridge the racial divide on a philosophical level - and succeed in making connections with white voters on the political level.
Michael MungerPolitical Science ProfessorDuke University
Obama's speech was brave. He is trying to take an actual position, rather than just distance himself from the Rev. Wright, who is clearly a political liability. But I think he is being naive. There are just too many easy attack ads, piling up in the Republican library. (Michelle Obama: "For the first time in my adult life, I'm proud of my country." Rev. Wright: "God DAMN America.") Maybe it's a shame that you have to try to exhibit a treacly, shallow patriotism to be President. But John Kerry got hammered just for protesting the Vietnam War, a war that George W. Bush ducked. A black candidate named Barack Hussein Obama can't have questions about his patriotism, and commitment to America, not if he is going to beat a genuine war hero. I think Obama is unelectable. He had to distance himself far from Wright. Instead, he was brave.
Susan B. HansenProfessor, Department of Political ScienceUniversity of Pittsburgh
I'm afraid the dilemma for Obama is that the more he talks about race being unimportant or transcended, the more important it will become to the media and voters' perceptions. And even if he can move beyond it in PA and Hillary never mentions it, the Republicans and various shadowy 501(c)4 campaign groups will be hounding the issue and replaying those videos between now and November. I also question Obama's claim that on occasion most churchgoers "strongly disagree" with sermons by their priests/pastors. Those who do usually find another congregation - or replace the controversial minister!
Suzanne M. GoldDepartment of Political ScienceThe Pennsylvania State University
While it may convince some, there will inevitably be people out there who will not be able to disentangle Obama's words from Rev. Wright's. The Internet is a powerful thing, and between Rev. Wright's words, the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, and the picture of Obama in "Muslim-looking" apparel, there will be people all over the country, not just in Pennsylvania, that will see and hear those few things and run with them. No damage control can change those people's minds.
What Obama was able to do today was set the record straight as best as he could. He confronted the racial rumblings in the campaign that finally erupted with Rev. Wright's comments. I think it definitely works to his advantage to tackle the topic of race head on as opposed to pretending it does not make a difference in the campaign. The fact is that he is Black, and this puts him in another category than the rest of the other candidates. Running from that fact can only make him look like he is running away from his roots, and this would outrage the Black community - his core supporters.
It is important for any presidential candidate to tackle "scandals" like these head on as opposed to running from them. If they do not confront them, the opponents will and it will quickly become much bigger than it would have been. In regard to White working class Pennsylvanians, I think they will react like all other voters around the country - those who already like Obama will say his speech was moving and inspirational, and those who have never liked him will say this is just another example of him using rhetoric with no action to back it up. As for the swing voters (the real target group) Obama will continue to address these issues in the same manner and "set the record straight," so to speak, continuously until April 22nd. This is not the last we will hear of this from Obama - especially not in Pennsylvania.
Eric PlutzerDepartment of Political SciencePenn State University
It did not put the Rev. Wright controversy behind him. Those skeptical of Obama are likely to continue to distribute video clips, and quotes of Obama's own words, to argue that his reaction was not sufficiently strong - out of context and perhaps even in context, there were plenty of passages that reflect a mixed message with respect to Wright. It was a great speech but few Americans sitting on the fence - either Democrats for upcoming primaries or independents in the general election - will have heard more than a few bites. It will have an effect only if it reverberates among party leaders and thoughtful independents.
Stephanie CutterUnaffiliated Democratic ConsultantWorked on John Kerry's 2004 Presidential Campaign
I thought the speech was incredibly honest and personal. Very few politicians in this country, black or white, could have given an authentic speech like that and speak to the experiences of every American. I don't think these issues are going away, but Obama changed the terms of the debate. From the start, the promise of his candidacy has been about moving beyond petty politics and confronting the big issues confronting the country. He did that today. There are likely lots of voters giving him a second look today who had previously written him off.
Donna BrazileUnaffiliated Democratic ConsultantRan Al Gore's 2000 Presidential Campaign
Senator Obama had to walk a very thin line, both rebuking and distancing himself from his former pastor as well as reminding people of the long march toward the more perfect union.
He's unlike any other politician - I've been racking my brain all day, what other politician could weave not just their own personal history with American history but serving themselves up as an example of the contradictions in this country? He did a fine job of getting back on the high road. The question remains: will this road lead to the White House or back to the United States Senate? There's a path for Barack Obama still to the White House. Given his background, given that there's pieces of America residing in him, he must now show the people of Pennsylvania that he cares about their future and it's not just about race. They want to know that he's going to fight for their jobs, and on the economy.
Jamal SimmonsUnaffiliated Democratic strategist
Wow. It was a speech that was not partisan. It was political with a small p and it was also philosophical. It was the most profound speech about race that I could recall in my lifetime.
Here's somebody with an extraordinary amount of credibility on this topic from who he is genetically, to how he was raised to who he is politically. At the same time placing in context who Jeremiah Wright is. This speech is not out of the political playbook. A bunch of consultants did not dream this up. He denounced Wright but stood by him and compared him to his grandmother, that is politically risky. Especially on both sides.
I hear African Americans who were upset that he even denounced Jeremiah Wright's words. And there'll be people on the right that think that standing by his mentor is the wrong thing to do. There's a lot of African Americans who feel that it was gratuitous - talking about the pain or blame that white Americans feel over pressure for jobs. But that too is the message that will help in Pennsylvania and beyond. That he can express to white Americans what makes them uneasy, that it's the competition and that blacks and whites can sit and point fingers at each other and blaming each other but the reality is they need to put those differences aside to work together and fix some of these problems. Will it resound across the board? Maybe not, but we have seen examples of it already in Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Idaho. It was an incredibly honest speech: either you hear me or you don't, either you agree with me or you don't. That's a brave thing to do politically that you don't often see.
Stephen SchneckProfessor of Political ScienceCatholic University of America
Senator Obama's charm has always been about more than personal charisma and inspiring oratory. Both symbolically and practically his touted "audacity of hope" was thought to signal transcending the old divisions of American politics and even that some new era was possible. Obama had to give this speech in Philly today because his campaign's basic message was being undercut.
It was Obama himself who depicted Reverend Wright as inspiring his candidacy. The "audacity of hope" was Wright's very language. To the extent that these snippets from Wright were seen to contradict Obama's "transcending" language then the emotional heart of his campaign is compromised.
The Philly speech was strong, but one wonders if it is enough. It's greatest moments were those conveying self-identity, conveying that he is a new era kind of American who will not subscribe to the old divisions. But, nothing in American politics is more divisive or more volatile than race: not political parties, not ideology, not abortion, not gun rights, not war and peace. Neither the candidate nor the Democratic party can be pleased to see today's Quinnipiac Pennsylvania poll showing sharpening African-American support for Obama and sharpening white support for Senator Clinton.