Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Racial Peril

Barack Obama, with his speech today, harnessing the height of his rhetorical power, sought to end his campaign's downward spiral of racial recrimination.

As powerful a speaker as he is, I don't think he closed the deal (see a conservative blog roundup

as Jim VandeHei and John Harris argue, Obama's address may have unpacked even deeper challenges to his transcendental message:

Barack Obama’s plunge into the race issue in Philadelphia on Tuesday at times sounded more like a sermon than a speech.

But beneath the personal anecdotes and historical allusions, it was a delicately crafted political statement — one that makes clear that Obama understands exactly how much peril he is facing.

Even before the Jeremiah Wright controversy erupted in recent days, voting patterns in several states made clear — for all the glow of Obama’s reputation as a bridge-builder — how uneven his record really is when it comes to transcending deep racial divides.

The Philadelphia speech offered lines calculated to reassure all the groups with which he is most vulnerable.

For working-class whites — whose coolness toward Obama helped tilt Ohio to Hillary Rodham Clinton — Obama spoke with understanding about why they dislike busing and affirmative action. “Like the anger in the black community, these resentments aren’t always shared in polite company,” he said.

For Hispanics, who have sided with Clinton in the vast majority of states this election, he lashed pundits scouring polls for signs of tension between “black and brown” and said the two communities face a common heritage of discrimination and inadequate public services.

Finally, Obama sought to connect with white Jewish voters — potentially one of the rawest nerves of all amid the Wright controversy — denouncing those blacks who see “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.”

It will take weeks, at least until the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, to know whether all of Obama’s political and cultural base-touching succeeded.

Even before that verdict arrives, the speech counts as a remarkable event — most of all for the specificity with which Obama discussed racial attitudes and animosities that politicians usually prefer to leave unmentioned.
Gallup also examines the staggering hurdles for Obama's post-racial agenda:

Barack Obama's major speech on race in Philadelphia Tuesday is a reminder of the continuing, and highly charged, impact of race in American society and in this presidential campaign.

Obama, confronted with the continuing controversy over statements made by his former minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, tried to limit the damage by discussing what he called "a misunderstanding that exists between the races." Obama's speech presumably had the objective of shoring up as much white support for his presidential candidacy as possible among Democratic voters, particularly in the large state of Pennsylvania, the location for his speech and a state that holds its Democratic primary on April 22....

While Obama's focus at this point is largely on his attempt to win the Democratic nomination, his viability in the general election (should he win the nomination) will also be affected by white voters' views of his candidacy.
I'll have more on this in forthcoming posts.