.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

What Would People Think?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Obama's Race Speech

I just took 37 minutes of my time to listen to Barack Obama's speech on racial issues in this country. Obama's speech - which, politically, was meant to confront the controversy over the idiotic remarks of his former pastor but then moved on to address the complexities of racial politics in America - can be found here. (For the moment, you can listen to it here.)

I must say I am thoroughly impressed. If you've got 37 minutes to spare (and God knows the only moment I have that kind of time is after 12:00-12:37 AM on a Friday night/Saturday morning while my wife is asleep), then I highly recommend you watch this speech.

The speech reminds me of another one-term Congressman from Illinois who ran for President: Abraham Lincoln.

Yes, yes, I know. Comparing a president to Lincoln is supposed to be the ultimate in silliness, naivete, ego, or historical ignorance. It's sort of a reverse Godwin law...trying to tie someone to the ultimate in good Presidents instead of the ultimate evil of the Nazis. But humor me for a moment. I'm not trying to say that Obama will be the nation's greatest President or anything so sweeping. It's just that, in this speech, Obama displayed many of the traits I find so awesome about Lincoln.

The qualities that made Lincoln such a great leader are present throughout his presidency but are best represented in his Second Inaugural Address. First off, Lincoln was able to understand both sides of an issue. He could see clearly where someone was coming from, even if he disagreed with that someone with every fiber of his being. In his 1858 Senate campaign, Lincoln consistently argued against the expansion of slavery and that slavery was wrong, but he also spoke to his audience of what the white slave owners would be thinking. Second, Lincoln was very reluctant to demonize his opponents. Nobody in the North would have blamed him if he blamed the South for the Civil War and denounced Confederacy as a nation of bloodthirsty, slave-owning tyrants. In fact, that was the safe position to take in the North at that time. Instead, he consistently humanized the South, charted a policy of "malice toward none", and put the blame for slavery and the war on both parts of the nation. Third, Lincoln was a realist. He knew quite well the racism of Northern whites, and timed the Emancipation Proclamation to be most palatable even to racists - after a big victory, so that morale was high, and later in the war when it could be argued emancipation was a military necessity. Fourth and finally, Lincoln was, despite his realism, an idealist. Knowing the limitations, he still dreamed big. He wanted the former slaves in the South not only free, but granted full rights as citizens, including the vote. (That's one of the reasons John Wilkes Booth decided Lincoln had to die.) He aimed, despite the deep-seated bitterness left by the war, to reconcile North with South.

I heard echoes of these traits in Obama's speech. First, he was clear-headed about both the black and the white experience when it comes to issues of race. He described in clear terms how racial resentment can and has built up over time with a clear understanding of both sides. Second, he chose not to portray other people as caricatures. Despite a few pot-shots at Geraldine Ferraro (hey, he's a presidential candidate, not a saint), he did not use his speech to portray either his political opponents or white people as somehow evil. Third, he was realistic and level-headed about the problems America faces on the issue of race and the unlikelihood that one candidacy will solve them. Fourth, despite his realism, he was idealistic and inspiring. He appeared to truly believe America can unite and solve the massive problems we face.

So no, I'm not saying Obama = Lincoln. Nor am I saying he's proven that he can solve all our problems. But the similarities between the two Illinois natives make me more optimistic about Obama than ever.


  • I think it was one of the best political speeches I've heard. You pretty much hit all the reasons I liked it, so I won't belabor the point.

    Also, the discussion on Jeff's blog continues. I have thrown my hat back in the ring after long ago withdrawing it.

    Happy Easter/Spectacular Sunday!

    By Blogger Mike, at 3/23/2008 10:41 AM  

  • I am happy to say that I agree entirely on this post. I am dismayed to say that this is the first Obama has shown the kind of depth I've been clamoring for him to show. I'm hopeful that he will continue to exhibit this kind of depth and nuance.

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 3/23/2008 10:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home