He was very smart not to just go with Romney’s speech.
It was a more sedate speech than I’d expected, but one suspects that too much passion might be misinterpreted. As for the content, he said some things that echo arguments liberals (not just black politicians) have made in the past: Wright’s comments are rooted in a history of real racism. But he also did something that seems completely unique to him, both as a liberal and a black politician: He acknowledged — maybe even acknowledged as legitimate — the anger that working-class whites feel about busing, affirmative action, and other sources of racial friction, as a parallel to the anger of Wright’s congregation. A powerful moment, and it suggests that there is substance to his vision of bridging racial divides.
(An important difference: Obama did not characterize Wright’s success as dependent on “exploiting fears,” as he did white politicians who address the anger of whites.)* That said, who was Obama talking to? Who was listening? Would any working class white person change their mind after listening to this speech? Would anyone who had decided that Obama has been tainted by Wright now be swayed to vote for him?
The bind Obama’s critics face is that as much as Obama called upon people to reject racism and focus on issues, there’s an implicit corollary: The way to show that you’ve moved beyond racism is to support him. The burden is on Obama’s opponents to find a way to debate issues. Of course, the whole point of his campaign is that he can do that just fine, too.
UPDATE: A Republican staffer friend writes:
“I watched. Well written, intelligent, politically clever in that way he has of ennobling his candidacy even while insulting his opponents and their supporters…But most people aren’t as tuned to insults as campaign staff — the unfair moral equivalence he implied between Wright and Ferraro or the suggestion that white men voting for McCain do so because they are trapped in old resentments.
Also…Usually, it his performance and not the empty, feel good platitudes of his text that appeal. Today, the reverse, [a] supple but precisely crafted speech, intended to be interpreted variously by people of different bkgrds but that leads them to the same conclusion, voting for Obama, will improve us [--] without relying on a spellbinding performance. V smart, that.”
*UPDATE: I had missed this:
“That anger [among blacks] may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.”
UPDATE: JP offers his take here.