Obama's faith in the reasoning abilities of the American public

His speech underscored both the promise and the risk of his campaign strategy.

By Glenn Greenwald
March 19, 2008 3:51AM (UTC)
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(updated below)

I haven't written about the Obama speech yet (video here) because I spent much of the day reading the instantaneous reactions of virtually everyone else, and because the issues raised by the speech are complex and my views about it are somewhat ambiguous. Personally, I found the speech riveting, provocative, insightful, thoughtful and courageous -- courageous because it eschewed almost completely all cliches, pandering and condescension, the first time I can recall a political figure of any significance doing so when addressing a controversial matter.


There were numerous manipulative tactics which the average cynical political strategist would have urged him to employ, and none of those were found in his speech. It was as candid and sophisticated a discussion of the complexities of race in America as any individual could possibly manage in a 45-minute speech, particularly one delivered in the middle of a heated presidential campaign and a shrill political controversy. Then again, I found the whole Wright "controversy" manufactured and relatively petty from the start, and worse, the by-product of a glaring double standard, so the speech obviously wasn't aimed at people who had the beliefs about this whole matter that I had.

The speech will be adored by Obama fans, the political and media elite, and high-information, politically engaged voters other than those firmly entrenched on the Right. But politically speaking, that isn't the target audience either. Barbara O'Brien describes perfectly the real question with regard to the speech's political impact:

I think the question about the speech, articulated by Rachel Maddow on David Gregory’s new MSNBC program, is whether white America will step up and receive the speech in the same spirit in which it was given. Obama's speech was challenging. He assumed that his audience could hear his words and and think about them. He assumed people could get beyond simple narratives, sound bytes, and jerking knees.

Steve M. reluctantly makes the case as to why the speech won't work despite (or, more accurately, because of) its high-minded, steadfast refusal to pander:

The premises [the speech] lays out require you to be an adult, and I'm not convinced that most Americans are adults, at least when looking for a candidate to support. . . .

This isn't what Americans like to hear in political speeches. They like to hear: Good people = us (America, our party). Bad people = them (communists, terrorists, criminals, drug dealers, our ideological opposites, the other party, or some group we identify in code rather than explicitly).

That wasn't the tone of this speech. I hope I'm wrong, but Obama may pay a price for not giving people what they like to hear.

The entire premise of Barack Obama's candidacy is built upon the opposite assumption -- that Americans are not only able, but eager, to participate in a more elevated and reasoned political discourse, one that moves beyond the boisterous, screeching, simple-minded, ugly, vapid attack-based distractions and patronizing manipulation -- the Drudgian Freak Show -- that has dominated our political debates for the last two decades at least.

Nobody actually knows which of these views are right because there hasn't been a serious national campaign in a very long time that has attempted to elevate itself above the Drudgian muck by relying (not entirely, but mostly) upon reasoned discourse and substantive discussions -- at least not with the potency that Obama generates. Will George Bush's ranch hats and Willie Horton's scary face and Al Gore's earth tones and John Kerry's windsurfing tights inevitably overwhelm sober, substantive discussions of the fundamental political crises plaguing the country? Obama's insistence that Americans are hungry for that sort of elevated debate and are able to engage it -- and his willingness to stake his campaign on his being right about that -- has been, in my view, one of the most admirable aspects of his candidacy.

But in Obama's faith in the average American voter lies one of the greatest weaknesses of his campaign. His faith in the ability and willingness of Americans to rise above manipulative political tactics seems drastically to understate both the efficacy of such tactics and the deafening amplification they receive from our establishment press. Even Americans who authentically believe that they want a "new, better politics" may be swayed by the same old Drudgian sewerage because it is powerful and ubiquitous.


Petty, personality-based demonization works, and the belief that it won't work any longer in the absence of a major war against it may be more a by-product of faith and desire than reality. Obama's calm reason and rational (though inspiring) discourse are matched against very visceral images and psychologically gripping strategies. As Pam Spaulding said in commenting on the Jeremiah Wright videos:

That said, people have to acknowledge part of the reason for the discomfort lies in Wright's delivery of the message. It's so black, isn't it? It sounds militant to tender ears outside the traditional black church. . . .

I want to turn the discussion back to race, because I think this episode with Rev. Wright exposed the whole "scary black revolution" primal fear here. . . .

When I heard Wright, I heard a delivery not unlike the unhinged gay-bashing Rev. Willie Wilson . . . . The delivery sounds so angry, so harsh to many. You get the feeling, based on the reaction out there, that people are afraid Barack Obama by association, is some sort of Trojan Horse of Black Anger waiting to be unleashed, prepared to exact revenge on white society by pulling their wool over their eyes by appearing friendly, "articulate" and non-threatening. In other words -- not that [Wright] kind of black guy.

In 1988, those deep-seated, lurking fears were stirred up perfectly by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes in order to defeat the Willie-Horton-loving Michael Dukakis. The entire Obama campaign is predicated on the belief that it is no longer 1988. As David Axelrod put it when asked if there was debate within the Obama campaign about whether he should give this speech:

It wasn't even a discussion. 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.

The New Republic's Michael Crowley, with one of the better discussions of the Obama speech, similarly reported:

The information era being what it is, I was already debating my thesis via email with an Obama aide as I wrote this reaction. He warned me against assuming that Reagan Democrats are defined by the same racial prejudices that defined them in the 1980s, back when crime and welfare were primary political issues, when one Willie Horton could turn an election. He may be right. I hope he is. Unfortunately, I fear that America hasn't come nearly as far as he hopes. But it is the answer to that question that will determine the fate of Barack Obama.

I think that's a perfect summation of the overarching question, one that nobody is really able to answer. The truly distinctive and "change"-oriented aspect of Obama's campaign lies not in any new or exotic policy positions -- his views on the Middle East, for instance, are often as conventional as it gets. What is distinctive is the far more consequential assumption that Americans want and are able to engage an elevated and more noble type of politics than the depressingly familiar garbage spewed from the Rush Limbaugh Show, The Drudge Report, Fox News, the cable news media stars, and all of their cooperating media and political appendages. We'll know soon enough if Obama is right.

UPDATE: In comments, DCLaw1 makes as compelling a case as can be made as to why Obama's speech will succeed politically, with an emphasis on the importance of how well-received it was by the media and political elite. It's well worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald

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