Obama Offers Nuance, Context, and Poetry on Race in America — But Is It Enough?

Since his rise to national prominence, Barack Obama has been tasked with giving big speeches while facing high expectations. It’s almost unrealistic to expect any political figure to keep delivering one powerful and historic address after another, but Obama — love him or hate him, an extraordinary orator — has managed to follow through and exceed expectations.

This morning was an especially challenging moment for the senator. Many Americans recoiled when confronted with inflammatory remarks from Obama’s former pastor, and the NYT reported today, that Obama “concluded over the weekend that he had not sufficiently explained his association with the pastor. He told several aides he was worried that if voters did not hear directly from him — in the setting of a major speech — doubts and questions about him might grow.”

With this in mind, Obama took to a Philadelphia stage this morning facing more than expectations; for a change, he was facing skepticism.

Generally, speeches are a bit like art — their quality is in the eye of the beholder. From where I sat, I found Obama’s speech rather extraordinary. Indeed, it’s the kind of speech politicians just don’t give anymore — a brilliant address with context and nuance. It answered key questions, while challenging his audience with new ones.

Of course, our modern political landscape very rarely rewards context and nuance, brilliant or not, so whether Obama managed to help his campaign today remains to be seen. It’s depressing, but Michael Crowley’s point in response to the speech is important: “[It was] brilliant, beautiful, inspiring — but perhaps not what crass electoral politics demanded of him.”

It feels almost ridiculous to wonder whether a candidate’s speech is too good for modern campaigning and today’s media, but it’s hardly an unreasonable question this afternoon.

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