My prediction regarding Obama’s speech pretty much came to pass. He used the historic location of Philadelphia not only to praise our nation’s ideals and call attention to their inconsistent practice, but also to reveal the ways in which black Americans, in particular, regard this “gap” between “promise” and “reality” a troublesome feature of the American polity. In addition, he used this discussion as the touchstone for his nimble criticism and defense of his “former pastor,” as well as jump-starting what he hoped would be a national conversation about race in America.
While he did not go so far as to quote Bill Clinton’s 1st Inaugural Address (“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America”), as I anticipated Obama did approximate the sentiment by stating that “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution . . . [with] the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” He one-upped the former president by addressing the question of race in America with all the candor, sophistication, and grace that was lacking from Clinton’s town hall meetings on the subject. As misguided as I believe Obama’s actual policies would be (on race and other issues), his speech landed between a "Sister Souljah moment" and Martin Luther’s King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, coming closer to the latter than the former in its high-minded appreciation of America’s noblest principles and its clear-sighted recognition of America’s inconsistent practices.
There’s a lot to comment on in his 43-minute speech, but I will close with two more observations (for now, as I am sure to hear soon enough about what I missed or got wrong). First, leaving aside his bold, nuanced criticism/defense of the Rev. Wright, here is a cynic’s schematic of the partisan message of Obama’s speech:
To solve America’s “monumental problems,” Americans need UNITY.
To become unified, Americans need to CHANGE politics as usual.
To change our politics, Americans need to follow someone who not only believes in a different way of doing things, but also literally embodies the UNITY and CHANGE the country needs.
Ecce homo: Barack Obama.
I hasten to add that it was not just a partisan speech, and not simply because Obama says he is practicing a new kind of politics. To miss the non-partisan elements of his speech is to miss an opportunity to learn what Republicans in particular must learn in order to improve their prospects among black Americans. As Aretha Franklin put it, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” We can “find out what it means” to them by beginning with Obama’s rendering of the black church and the black American experience as a heritage that entails “embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of the past.” Well put; now discuss.
My second observation: The underlying question for candidate Obama is, what is the basis of American union? How would he lead so that the diversity of the American people becomes a unity that strengthens rather than a division that weakens us? The Party of Lincoln believes the central idea of American union is human equality, understood as the equal possession of the rights of humanity (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), whereby government exists to secure or protect the exercise of these God-given, natural rights.
As far as I can make out, the Democrats believe the American union is not the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, as Obama preaches in true e pluribus unum fashion, but merely a coalition of supplicant interests beholden to a national government. The notion of a common good that Democrats tout is less about the prosperity of a free, industrious, and self-governing people and more about a common condition of want, desperation, and disability. Does Obama recognize that the self-help gospel practiced by Obama and preached by the Rev. Wright would be undermined by the very policies he, as a Democrat, recommends?