Something was missing from Barack Obama's landmark speech on race and religion in Philadelphia on Tuesday. It wasn't the American flag; there were four of them over his left shoulder, and four over his right. It wasn't a deep sense of patriotism either, given that he was speaking at the National Constitution Center, close to the Liberty Bell Center.
It was the sign that follows him to every event, stuck to the front of every podium, or propped on a bookcase behind him in every TV interview. The one that bears his campaign slogan: "Change We Can Believe In."
Maybe that's because this wasn't supposed to look or sound like a campaign event—even though the speech was one of the defining moments of his presidential run, rivaling his widely heralded victory addresses following his wins in Iowa and South Carolina. Philadelphia was the site of a momentum-shifting debate last fall, when Obama—aided by several other candidates—put Hillary Clinton on the defensive over her handling of the records of her years as First Lady, among other issues. Obama clearly hoped that his speech on race would similarly shift the momentum, which has been trending against him over the last few weeks, during a lull in the primary balloting.
Obama decided to make the speech after several news cycles in which controversial comments by his onetime pastor, Jeremiah Wright Jr., played in a seemingly never-ending loop on cable TV. But rather than merely distancing himself from Wright, he took the talk in a far more personal, sweeping—and politically risky—direction.
"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," Obama said, arguing that Wright's intemperate remarks, while unsupportable in Obama's view, legitimately reflected a real anger among African-Americans. "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love."
With that, Obama broke with the pattern, played out by both major contenders for the Democratic nomination, of distancing themselves from controversial supporters, applauding their resignations and plunging back into the talking points. Obama used the constant harping on Wright's strident remarks as an opening to delve into the thorny complications of race in America. "The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through—a part of our union that we have yet to perfect," Obama said. "And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat to our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American." At that point, 20 minutes into the speech, the audience of several hundred invited guests burst into applause.
It remains to be seen whether Obama's speech will quiet the cable news fixation with Wright—and whether addressing race in such a head-on fashion will pay dividends, in this closely fought contest, which has seen African-American voters flock overwhelmingly to his side. Will it win over the blue-collar white males who have been trending toward his opponent, or drive them away? But if it was a roll of the dice, Obama took the gamble with gusto—and deftly sought to repurpose the Wright controversy as an engine of the kind of change he has offered as the central thrust of his candidacy.
"We can tackle race only as spectacle, as we did in the O.J. trial. Or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina. Or as fodder for the nightly news," he said. "We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies. We can do that.
"But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
"That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.' This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn, that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st-century economy. Not this time."
Afterward Obama's aides applauded the speech as a way to take control of the narrative on race—and weave into it the story of his own life. "He has wanted to make this speech for a long time," says David Axelrod, Obama's senior strategist. "The question was when. He knew this was the right time. The firestorm about Wright and [former representative Geraldine] Ferraro meant that race was creeping up as a kind of dominant discussion." (Ferraro, a Clinton finance committee member, resigned her post after her own comments about Obama—suggesting he would not be enjoying such success as a candidate if he were white—caused a firestorm.)
Obama dictated a first draft to his young speechwriter Jon Favreau on Saturday, then reworked the speech until 3 a.m. Monday. He went at it anew on Tuesday, tweaking away until 2 a.m. Did Obama's political aides try to warn him off the idea? "It wasn't even a discussion," says Axelrod. "He was going to do it. I know this sounds perhaps corny, but he actually believes in the fairness and good sense of the American people, and the importance of this issue. His candidacy is predicated on the fact that we can talk to each other in an honest and forthright way on this and other issues."
In introducing the speech, Harris Wofford, the former senator from Pennsylvania, hinted at the historic weight that hung over the occasion. Wofford, a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.'s and a onetime adviser to President John F. Kennedy, recalled a White House conversation with King, after Kennedy had informed King that there would be no quick vote on the sweeping civil rights legislation pending. "Martin turned to me and said, 'I had hoped we at long last had a president who had the intelligence to understand this problem and the political skill to solve it and the moral passion to see it through. I'm convinced … that he has got the intelligence and the skill. We'll have to see if he has the passion'."
Wofford suggested that Obama did in fact possess all three qualities. The critics, reporters, cable commentators—and ultimately the voters—will all be weighing that assertion in the aftermath of the most personal and extensive discussion of the legacy of slavery made by any major American politician in memory. For the moment, Obama gave them much more to talk about than the sermons of Jeremiah Wright.