The Politics of Obama's Speech on Race in America

Following up on my earlier analysis of the address, I've seen a few suggestions this afternoon that the downside of Barack Obama's speech on race today in Philadelphia, which emerged before he even uttered a word, is that Obama was putting race front and center, once again. Instead of moving on to other subjects, the argument goes, and pushing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright off the front page, Obama kept the focus where he doesn't want it. Indeed, watching the address, one got the impression at times that the senator would have preferred if he were talking about something else.

While I understand the argument, I'm still inclined to think the speech served a valuable political purpose, which, barring widespread media malpractice, will ultimately help Obama's chances.

First, I suspect if Obama tried to change the subject without addressing Wright questions in more detail, it wouldn't have worked. The "controversy" still had legs, and the powers that be still wanted to hear Obama answer their questions in more depth. Yes, the speech guaranteed a new round of coverage, but as more a coda than an intro.

Second, as Jonathan Chait noted today, Obama's speech went a long way towards moving past Wright and Ferraro, and preventing the campaign from being "defined by racial tiffs."

Obama did a couple things toward that end. The first was to discuss white and black racial grievance in a sophisticated way. This was the answer to critics who say he thinks he can transcend race, or wipe away the sins of racism merely through becoming president. You can't accuse him of simply trying to float above racial issues.
Secondly, he give himself a pivot to define the racialized discourse as something he wants to rise above. He's willing to discuss race on his terms -- in subtle and sophisticated ways. He refuses to engage in a daily tit-for-tat about Wright, Ferraro, the race card, and all the rest. [...]
That's the message of the speech going forward: I just spoke at length and in depth about race, but from now on my campaign is not going to be about race. That's where I think he's going to go with this.
Agreed. In fact, there are already indications that Obama is ready, to borrow a phrase, turn the page.

This press release hit my inbox about an hour ago:

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