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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's "Race Speech"

Today, Barack Obama will make a speech on race in America, and it is the ultimate risk assessment of his campaign. There is some upside, but he has the potential to crash and burn. The speech has the feel of a candidate who is losing and needs to change the tenor of his campaign, not one who is leading by over a hundred delegates and can sit on a lead for the final ten primaries. Yet he pushes forward with a big speech. Why?

That question will be answered in a bit. But first, let's take a look at the worst, realistic, and best case scenario for the Obama campaign after this speech.

Worst case scenario: The black candidate talks about race. He draws more attention to his skin color, his name (first, middle, and last), his heritage, and pictures of him in Kenya that may or may not have been taken by Hillary Clinton using Karl Rove's camera. The Jeremiah Wright story gets another news cycle worth of play (a story I have purposefully avoided because using excerpts of a candidate's friend in order to attack the candidate himself while simultaneously pushing racial divisiveness in America is everything that is wrong with politics and the media). Despite Obama's best intentions, a nervous white base - either nervous about a different looking President or nervous about Obama's chances in the general - quietly deserts Obama. His platform of unity is torn apart by the focus on his minister and his race.

Obama, who still clings to the momentum in the race, loses it with this speech, and his national numbers begin to decline. A resounding Clinton win in Pennsylvania begins a huge ramp-up of momentum for her, and she wins nearly all remaining primaries, including a huge win in a potential June Michigan Primary. Superdelegates commit during her momentum and push her over 2,000 delegates and she gets the nomination.

Realistic scenario: No palpable effect. Mitt Romney's speech about his Mormonism and faith in America had no effect on the polls. Romney still ran in second or third place and still cleared 90% in Utah. The country already knew Obama was black and has already been slammed over the head with his middle name and one-time Kenyan garb. He will try to reassure white voters that he is the change candidate, not the black candidate, but changes few minds in the process. For now, however, the status quo is enough for his nomination.

Obama's speech and the Wright story are yesterday's news by next week (thanks to the Pro-Bama media), when the four week countdown to Pennsylvania refocuses the campaign on the collapsing economy, resurgence of violence in Iraq, and who best matches up with John McCain.

Best case scenario: He rejuvenates white supporters and completes his victory by June. He acknowledges that he, Barack Obama, is just another character in this country's progress in racial relations. We have gone from slavery to civil rights to a black presidential candidate with countless steps in between. At no point was there a character bigger than the story, though never closer than Dr. King (who must be mentioned in Obama's speech today).

Characters and events, however, can advance the story. Barack Obama is the character and his run at the presidency is the event. What is somehow not mentioned enough is that black America has had few figures this important in its community since Martin Luther King Jr. himself. And remember Dr. King's relationship with Americans. He was one of the most respected men to Americans of all races, though there were obviously millions of holdouts who feared his power to inspire the masses. He inspired with words and speeches, which Clinton continues to underrate, not with seven years in the Senate and eight years married to the president.

Barack Obama is not Dr. King, and Obama will be the first to admit that. But that doesn't mean that Obama cannot aim for that type of unifying and inspiring effect on the American people.

A small but loud criticism of Obama is that he is great at being a politician, but would not be great at being a leader. A reader emailed me yesterday to say, "He (Obama) is nothing more than a shifty, clever politician, duping the gullible into drinking his Kool-aid."

One should not argue anything other than this unbiased conclusion: That remains to be seen.

Perhaps that is enough reason to vote against him, because we don't know what we're getting, and the only way to find out is to elect him. For those impatient to find out what he can bring to the presidency, today's speech is a preview. Will he bend to the will of the people because he wants to get elected? Or, will he use this unique situation (a legitimate black presidential candidate talking about race in America) to soothe race relations in this election, continuing the climb to the mountain top?

I, for one, hope it's the latter, though I'm not sure we'd even be able to tell the difference. To answer the question from this column's introduction, the following is why he takes this risk. These are words from Dr. King himself. On March 31st, 1968, as Dr. King unknowingly concluded the last complete month of his life, he offered these words in a sermon at the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

"Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus."

Barack Obama, you're on.

4 comments:

Jeramy said...

The story is that he can't unite anyone. He is toast against McCain. Hillary at least has experience to go woman to man with him.

Darren said...

Best post on the blog so far. Nicely done.

Jonathan said...

Agreed with the post above, though it's tough to beat your Florida and Michigan analysis. Did you notice how the media copied your sentiments exactly? I think Glenn Beck lifted your material.

Sam said...

Gotta tell you that I really found this interesting though we might stand on different sides of the pendulum. Very well delivered message. If you find the time, check out my political blog on my personal site at www.samritter.com. Hit me back and let you know what you think.

Sam

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