Nonpartisan Thoughts on Obama's Speech on Race

[Republished from]

[You can read text of the speech and see a video here.]

The first things that struck me about the speech was how apolitical it was. It really seemed like something more suited to a lecture hall in a university than a presidential campaign. It's just not something that can be analyzed looking at the traditional horse-race type machinations.

Briefly, though, to the extent it will affect what people think, it's important to note something Jonathan Martin noted this morning - that it's not the elites of the internet or media that matter, but of the ordinary people. And that will take a while to figure out. There's one thing I disagree with Martin on though;<!--more--> I don't think it was Romney's speech that reminded people he was a Mormon, it was Huckabee who got the message out that he was an evangelical. Romney's support actually stayed pretty steady among his core base. In fact, he gave the speech just after he hit his low point in Iowa polls, as shown on the RCP Iowa map. I'm not sure if it's become conventional wisdom that Romney reminded everyone he was Mormon, but that doesn't seem to have been the case; he climbed back after the speech had presumably sunken in, only for Huckabee to surge ahead again in the final results. Moreover, it's not clear what effect the speech had outside of Iowa. Romney made similar gains in Florida, only to fall a few points short of McCain. Clearly, this bias could have been a problem. But I'm not sure that the conventional wisdom that the speech didn't significantly help is the right call.

But back to Obama's speech. I think given the internet reaction that it's rather likely the speech will shore up concerns among his own base. That doesn't seem to be generally in much doubt.

The most interesting parts to me are how detailed and realistic the speech was. There's no real quick way to sum up his argument. Ben Smith noted the headlines, and each misses a big part of his speech.

Obama doesn't run away from Wright in this speech. Instead, he paints Wright as someone quintessentially American: with admirable idealistic views whose views on some issues (mostly relating to race) are something that is a product of American history. I think this part of the speech, transitioning from fiercely criticizing Wright to why he still goes to Chucrch there, is the key section:

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.

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

This hearkens back for me to things Angelo and I talked about in our recent podcast concerning Wright, but clearly goes much further and is much richer.

It's difficult to be realistic in politics in this country. Liberals tend to look at racism in one way and conservatives another. It's difficult to publicly acknowledge that and still appeal to either side. It's not the third rail of American politics; it's the first and second rail, an easy way to get run over by a train if you talk about it at the wrong time or in the wrong way.

Now, the big problem: does this matter. I think to the extent people listen to the speech it will assuage some fears about Obama, but if they had deep seated fears about Obama to begin with, it probably won't matter.

Michael Crowley says the following:

But those [liberal intellectuals, -JW] weren't the people Obama needed to reach today. His target audience was working class white voters--Reagan Democrats with a historic tendency to let racial prejudice and fear override their other social and economic interests, and whose view of Obama the Jeremiah Wright controversy threaten to permanently warp. That's one reason Obama sounded a striking note of sympathy for racial resentment within white America:

I'm going to slightly disagree. He didn't have to reach the lower class today. He had to start a dialogue that could possibly reach them by the general election. Because there's little chance he's going to win that demographic against Clinton in Pennsylvania or West Virginia. And there will probably not be enough coverage of the speech for him to do that in the coming weeks anyways. But if he constantly hits these refrains it could be something that people will listen to and buy and end up supporting him should he be the nominee.

And I think his target was also superdelegates who ARE going to be watching this speech closely. They can see Obama can fight back and try to turn a negative situation into a positive example.

One other thing: Obama's grandmother is not dead, Rich Lowry.

Also, it seems that most of the criticism of the speech is not of it itself, but of that Obama sat in a Church with a pastor saying really offensive things, and that has un-repentantly hurt his reputation, no matter what he says. (That's my paraphrasing after a half hour of reading NRO posts). I'm not sure if blatant disqualification of anyone with close racist friends would be a good or even possible thing for America. From an objective viewpoint, it makes Obama less of a promising figure, but only more realistic. To the point, if a conservative politician had given the exact same speech and intertwined it with conservative ideals of more freedom in society instead of liberal ones, I'm pretty sure most of the conservatives at NRO would be praising it.

I'm also not convinced that Obama takes every quack viewpoint of Wright as seriously as some do. It's clear Obama has to answer for Wright's viewpoints, but I don't think that means taking the craziest one (9/11 conspiracy theory for instance) and saying that Obama takes it as seriously as any others.

It's also a bit strange that so many commentators are not focusing on the religious aspect of the speech in regards to Wright. I quoted that above. Obama takes the good parts of Wright far more seriously than the detractors, and it's not even something they focus on most of the time. And to the extent they do, they focus on the spectacle of the Church, and no more.

Frankly, I'm inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt in terms of who convinces them to join a particular religion. If the person who convinced George W. Bush to become born again was some Holocaust denier or something, does that impugn Bush? No.

The name of the doctrine escapes me at the moment, but being raised Catholic I was long taught that it was the intent of the worshiper and not the status of the priest that is meaningful. Clearly here that lines ends when Obama starts taking advice from Wright. And he should answer for that. But I'd say that Obama should not have to answer for being persuaded by non-offensive speeches by the man, and being persuaded to become Christian by him. It'd be wonderful if every meaningful figure we chose was a "Martin Luther King" type figure. But that's generally impossible.

Moreover, the conflation between Wright's Church and Wright still continues. They're not the same. Asking someone to abandon their Church is a lot more serious than occasion inflammatory remarks by a pastor. (That absolutely no one has said HOW often these occurred, fwiw).

In sum, I'd tend to agree with Charles Murray that it's a great speech. While most of the partisans emphasize themes that will help of hurt them in the election, this would have been an important political speech even if Obama was not running for President at all. (In fact, I think the effect on the race is marginal at best.)

Apparently, thinking about an apolitical speech in such apolitical terms is frowned upon when the speech was given by a politician. Oh well, I hope most people don't fall into that trap.

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Obama Campaign Overreacting To Drudge Photo?

[Republished from]

This morning Drudge ran with a story about a picture of Obama from his visit to Somalia in 2006 (photo here).  From Drudge:

With a week to go until the Texas and Ohio primaries, stressed Clinton staffers circulated a photo over the weekend of a "dressed" Barack Obama.

The photo, taken in 2006, shows the Democrat frontrunner fitted as a Somali Elder, during his visit to Wajir, a rural area in northeastern Kenya.

The senator was on a five-country tour of Africa.

"Wouldn't we be seeing this on the cover of every magazine if it were HRC?" questioned one campaign staffer, in an email obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT.

Right away, I (and any good skeptic should) had some questions about this:
  • First, is this report even true?  It seems like something that would be pretty easy to corroborat.  A screenshot of the forward perhaps?  A name of the staffer, something...anything? No?  Oh, you mean you just want us to take Drudge's word for it?  Oh, okay.

  • Second, assuming it is true, what exactly does "circulated" mean?  The report (and certainly the reaction of Obama's campaign) makes it seems as though the Clinton campaign is peppering Texas and Ohio with this picture.  Rather, at worst, this seems to be one staffer emailing this to another staffer.

  • Third, again assuming it's true, what exactly is the message?  Is there an insinuation that Obama is some secret Muslim? No.  Rather, it seems like a frustrated staffer complaining about the press coverage that Sen. Clinton has been receiving.  And truth be told, it is a fair criticism (although, such an email is definitely not the most effective way to complain).

Did the Obama campaign ask these questions?  Did they seek to corroborate Drudge's report?  Did they even try to figure out what was actually meant and said?  No. Instead, David Plouffe issued the following response:
"On the very day that Senator Clinton is giving a speech about restoring respect for America in the world, her campaign has engaged in the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party in this election. This is part of a disturbing pattern that led her county chairs to resign in Iowa, her campaign chairman to resign in New Hampshire, and it's exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world."

Plouffe is accusing Clinton's campaign of "shameful, offensive and fear-mongering" tactics worse than any candidate from either party so far during this election.  These are pretty strong words.  I sure hope they have confidence that Drudge's account is even accurate.  They must, right?
A reporter asked on a conference call with Obama advisors [sic] Susan Rice, Richard Danzig, and Scott Gration how they knew the email came from Clinton.

"I'm afraid we're not terribly well informed about it," said Danzig, who said he'd "love to hear [a denial] from them."

Alright, well, let's again assume that everything Drudge said is true, is Plouffe's response accurate?  Is an internal staff email complaining about press coverage (because I'm sure Obama staffers never complain or say surly things about their opponents) really worse than Romney suggesting that Democrats will waive the white flag of surrender to terrorists?  Or, [insert any other nasty thing that has happened this campaign, which is way way way worse than this internal email]?

Now, instead of offering a reasoned response, calmly articulating Obama's complete overreaction, Clinton's campaign manager sent out a nonsensical, irate response:


"If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed.  Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely.
"This is nothing more than an obvious and transparent attempt to distract from the serious issues confronting our country today and to attempt to create the very divisions they claim to decry.
We will not be distracted."

It may have better served them to point out that if it's true, they'll fire the staffer.  And then, offer for consideration the Obama campaign's response, without any corroboration or desire to get that corroboration, was not only extremely hyperbolic but also destructive for the party.

But still, it may serve everyone to actually think about the report, ask why Obama's campaign just blindly followed Drudge's account and if their response wasn't a bit of an overreaction.

There's more...'s Presidential Election Podcast (02/21/08)

This podcast covers (1) the CNN debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Texas; (2) John McCain's lobby friend that the New York times decided to write about; (3) and more...

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Feel free to email us questions/suggestions for next week's podcast (you can also email an audio file of your question and we'll include it in the podcast).

There's more...'s Live Blog Of CNN Democratic Debate In Austin, Texas (February 21, 2008)

[Re-published from This liveblog on MyDD will be updated periodically. For the latest please visit the active liveblog at]

7:00 PM: Greetings! The debate kicks off an hour from now, live on CNN and It's being broadcast from the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas. Clinton will continue her assault on Obama being all speeches and no solutions. Obama will probably respond not with attacks but by continuing to play calm and emphasize his own plans.

Campbell Brown is the moderator; somewhere, Katie Couric is sad. She couldn't get to moderate a debate but her stand in when she was at the Today Show does.

7:06: CNN photos from the debate. The Texas marching band is going to be in the room? Great, that's exactly what's needed to finally get the CNN debate over that pesky shark they've been trying to jump.

7:20: I'm choosing the pre-debate feed with no audio over the CNN coverage of John McCain having a friend. The band is playing, and people sitting directly in front of it have a look on their face that ranks a solid 9.8 on the ironic scale.

7:27: A very old man with a long beard and a top hat just walked by me. I'm assuming that's an omen for what is going to happen tonight. Either that, or it's an omen that the school forgot to lock the doors at 6 pm.

7:30: A reminder of what is on the line: Someone might have their head added to this.

7:35: Johnson would be 100 years old this year. I'm not sure what to make out of that.  He did teach high school debate at one point though. I hope is was not policy, because he talks way too slowly for that. (kidding!)

7:40: Texas Democrats are parading after each other on stage. I fear they're going to run out of them before the debate begins.

7:54: Goodness, the set is awkward. It's sort of a half S. Apparently Wolf roaming free last time was unacceptable; Brown will be seated.

8:00: And away we go. Campbell Brown looks happy to be there. Jorge Ramos from Univision and John King from CNN emerge to no applause … until they are forced to applaud.

8:02: Clinton is introduced first, and then Obama. No noticeable difference in applause levels. The pack of photographers does their job while a handler demand they back up. Meanwhile, 5 feet away they discuss what candidates need to do. That just sounds awkward. Meanwhile, Ramos talks about how no one can win without the Hispanic community. Brown points out that Clinton wants more debates.

8:05: Brown announces the candidates have sat down. Gee, thanks.

8:06: NO RULES!

8:07: Clinton gives an opening statement about working in Texas 36 years ago. She name drops Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards. Talks up starting S-CHIP, and what she did to give health care to reservists. Says that discrimination against sick people ought be unconstitutional, and that veteran care needs to be improved. Finishes by talking about her “lifetime of experience.” And apparently her campaign is now “your campaign.”

8:09: Obama again references being friends with Clinton. Talks about the economy, using a personal example. Make that multiple personal examples - this is a new wrinkle. Segues into a discussion of Iraq. Talks about how they both have offered proposals to deal with the issues, but good ideas are not the problem. Says good ideas go to Washington to die. That’s a pretty good tag line. He blames lobbyists. Obama co-ops Barbara Jordan, but quotes her to one up Clinton.

8:12: This audience is going to kill me with applause. There’s lengthy applause after every answer.

8:13: Tancredo turns off the debate when Ramos starts the debate in Spanish. Will Clinton sit with Raul Castro to get a measure of him? She “hopes so”. What does that mean? She says she is going to look for signs of openness, and will reach out once she sees progress, citing democracy and progress. When pressed, she clarifies no, until change happens. Apparently, she’s looking for change she can believe in.

8:16: Obama says that he’s willing to meet with Raul Castro, and sees an opportunity to change. Distinguishes preparation from precondition, but it sounds really, really similar. Like, really similar. He cites freeing political prisoners. Talks about opening change here with remittances and visiting.

8:18: Obama is asked about a statement about policy being a failure. He says it has been a failure, with no progress over his lifetime, and that changes should happen in steps.

8:19: Clinton says she agrees that willing to negotiate is good, but distinguishes presidential negotiations from low level negotiations.

[Continued at]

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Live Blog Of Bill Clinton Event In Madison, Wisconsin (February 14, 2008)

[Re-published from This liveblog on MyDD will be updated periodically. For the latest please visit the active liveblog at]

Today, Bill Clinton is campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Madison, Wisconsin.  He's scheduled to speak at 2:15 CST.  I'll be live blogging.

1:15: Alright, I'm here and I have my press credentials.  He's speaking at the UW Stock Pavilion.  It's probably worth noting that there are animal feces on the floor (not a lot, but enough to make the place smell a bit and certainly enough to mess up one's shoes, like mine for instance).  This is an especially sour point for me because I was forced to throw out my soda before taking my seat in the press area.  Apparently, poop is okay, but Coke Zero is just going to create too much of a mess.

1:30: Apparently, President Truman spoke here during his campaign for reelection.  I wonder if it was smelly/messy back then.

1:50: They're still seating people.  An inordinate amount of effort appears to be going into the locations of where people stand/stand.

2:12: And the seating continues. As of now, it's just about halfway filled with some people on the floor in front of the stage. So, I'd say there are about 1100-1300 people right now.

2:16:"A Change Will Do You Good" is blaring from the speakers. Something tells me, this is not the song they want to be playing at events for Hillary Clinton.

2:18: And now, they are playing Obama's entrance music - U2's "City Of Blinding Lights." This was certainly not an accident. And this is the kind of silly lame stuff that people criticize the Clintons for.

2:21: Some woman takes the podium. I have no idea who she is (and neither does anyone else in the press area). She talks about tomorrow being Susan B. Anthony's birthday and then goes on to explain why she is supporting Hllary Clinton.

2:23: The speaker notes that "Hillary represents the kind of change we need to get our country back on track." Hmm...okay...

2:26: She criticizes Republicans for cutting assistance to energy, then goes on to say "you don't need to be from Wisconsin to know that people need heat," which is just a very ironic statement given that this building isn't heated and it's freezing.

2:30: Congresswoman Hilda Solis takes the podium. She's from California. She begins, "Bienvenidos! That means welcome in Spanish." Then she starts a chant "What do we want!?" The crowd, obviously confused, did not respond. So she helps them by saying, "Hillary Clinton!" She goes on, "When do we want it?!" Again, only a few responses. She tries another cycle of the chant, but quickly moves into her speech. And explains that she's campaigning in Wisconsin because she believes in Hillary Clinton.

2:37: Solis makes a reference to the low turnout in Milwaukee. She says that there was a right wing radio host, who she didn't name, that was apparently telling people that the event was canceled or postponed. I should note that this event, which is in Madison, has about 2,000 people; I'll get a more precise figure in a bit.

2:43: Some silly girl in the audience keeps inexplicably screaming "Hillary!"

2:44: Bill Clinton takes the podium. The crowd is roars. He begins by talking about Solis' district and how it's comprised of Latinos and African Americans. Someone in the crowd shouts "YEA!," there's an awkward pause, Bill says "huh?" and then moves on with his speech.

2:48: Bill Clinton talks about the founders and their desire to create a more perfect union. And how Hillary believes in their vision, even though, at the time neither she nor Obama would have been allowed to participate in the founding because only white men were allowed to.

2:50: He talks about the recession that most people are beginning to feel. Asks the crowd to compare these past 7 years, with the 90s. Then goes on enumerate some economic problems: growth rates, job rates, types of jobs. Already, this speech has more substance than Obama's speech the preceding night. (I'm not saying one is necessarily better than the other, I'm just saying is all).

2:53: Asks the crowd to raise their hand if they know someone without health insurance. Tells everyone to look around. And then says that this question couldn't even be asked in any other wealthy country around the the world.

2:55: Launches into a discussion about the context in which this election is taking place. It's taking place in the context of: the Iraq war, an international community that's angry with us, climate changes and an economic downturn in the United States. After discussing each of those issues a bit, some more than others, he goes on to remind voters that their decision must be made in the context of these issues. Then offers a calculus for making that decision (not before complimenting the other Democratic primary contenders first, including those that have dropped out).

2:59: Begins his response against Obama's movement of change for change's sake. Argues that it seems a bit unfair to eliminate someone solely because they were part of the struggle during the 90s.

3:00: Asks "how would you define success?" Then offers Hillary's considerations for this question: 1) Will the American people be better off after I leave than when I started?; 2) Will the children and grandchildren of people be better off?; 3) Will the rest of the world respect us more?

3:02: Begins the biographical discussion of Hillary. Notes her decision to stay at law school an extra year in order to fight for children's rights. He forgot what he wanted to say for a second and says to himself, "I've forgotten what I wanted to say." Then provides some context for the children's issue that Hillary was fighting for at the time. This speech is substantive.

3:06: References Hillary's work in the Irish peace process. Notes how when the Irish leaders recently came to Washington to thank Bush for his support, they also requested Hillary be present.

3:09: Continuing with the 'Hillary is a doer' discussion, Pres. Clinton talks about a conversation he recently had with a "crusty Republican," who indicated that he'll have to vote for Hillary because she's the only person that's ever "done something."

3:10: References her work against PCBs, for increased health benefits for national guardsman and a few other things. Challenges: 'you can say that these things don't mean anything, but they do'

3:11: Now, onto climate change and Hillary's plans to combat climate change, while also creating green collar jobs.

[Continued at]

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