In bravely and comprehensively addressing the issue of race in America, its history and its persistent and corrosive impact on our society and politics, Barack Obama demonstrated uncommon leadership.
In recent weeks, the Democratic contest had descended into racially-tinged rancor. Comments by former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro stoked the flames suggesting that "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position;" then came clips of speeches given by Obama’s Pastor Jeremiah Wright in which he denounced American racism and foreign policy. These were used to pour gasoline on the flames.
There were accusations by some that the Clinton campaign’s hesitant and timid response to Ferraro’s words suggested that they were playing the "race card" to their advantage, attempting to marginalize Obama as "the black candidate" in majority-white Pennsylvania. Compounding all of this, the press, like sharks smelling blood in the water, engaged in a feeding frenzy, drawing out the Ferraro story for three days and showing ad nauseam the clips of Wright’s remarks.
While shallower analysts and some opponents saw all of this crippling Obama’s candidacy, the problem was more serious than that. Deepening the racial divide, more than harming just Obama, would do grave damage to the Democratic coalition itself. Growing resentment between some in both the black and white communities would have the effect of driving down turnout for whomever emerged as the eventual nominee. The challenge, therefore, was how to douse the flames and not cause them to spread further.
With Barack Obama having presented himself as a transformational figure who could help reconcile the many divides that plague the American polity, the challenges he faced were clear:
- He needed to both explain the tradition and prophetic voice of the black church, creating a deeper understanding of the historic contribution that church has made to advancing social justice and meeting the needs of African Americans.
- He needed to both firmly distance himself from the verbal excesses of his pastor, while respecting Wright and his otherwise exemplary leadership.
- He needed to examine and help explain the black experience in America, and the roots of the resentment that gave rise to Wright’s comments, while at the same time examining and understanding the source of alienation of working class whites who have become victims of the economic downturn, and have come to see affirmative action and/or illegal immigration as having contributed to their displacement.
- And, finally, he needed to establish himself as the candidate best equipped to confront this history and these challenges, moving the nation beyond the red state/blue state divide, and the black/white divide.
The Philadelphia speech – part masterful historical narrative of America’s birth, with the "original sin of slavery," to its ongoing effort to become "a more perfect union;" part social analysis of the way race has impacted both blacks and whites; and part exhortation to "find common ground" – showed Obama’s political instinct and rhetorical skills at their best. To borrow a reference from the recent past, he was at times like Martin Luther King, Jr., rising above rancor; and at times like Lyndon Baines Johnson, challenging the nation to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1965.
There will be those who will attempt to pick apart the speech, seeing not enough here or too much there. Those who do not want to heal the divide will inevitably find fault. Yet, taken in its entirety, the Philadelphia speech was masterful, a tour de force and a defining moment in presidential politics.
Time and again, Obama has displayed a remarkable instinct and ability to rise above "politics as usual." Even when goaded, he has not entered the fray. What he demonstrated in his Philadelphia speech was that it is precisely because of the resentment of Geraldine Ferraro and the pain of Jeremiah Wright that America needs to confront the corrosive and persistent issue of race; and that he, Barack Obama has "the right stuff" to do it.