The Meanings of Obama's Speech

Obama did more than talk about race. He began to build a progressive narrative that Democrats, and the progressive movement more broadly, have had difficulty developing.
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I watched Barack Obama's speech yesterday morning intently. The "pre-game show" of cable commentators predicted a somewhat grim outcome. What could Obama say that could possibly overcome his association with the words of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Would he throw his pastor on the train tracks? And even if he did, would he still suffer from guilt by association?

But then, for 45 minutes, I saw a man who for days had appeared somewhat at sea, buffeted by waves that relentlessly pushed him off course, seem to find his compass and chart a course directly into the eye of the storm. I saw a man with the inner confidence, and the steadiness of a captain who knew he was sailing on uncharted waters but needed to go there anyway, take the nation with him and land them safely on the shore.

The pundits were clearly stunned. They knew they had witnessed something extraordinary, a moment when time seemed to stand still and a politician in the midst of a withering electoral storm did the unspeakable: he spoke the truth. The unspoken, unspeakable truth. He told the nation that he understood what was happening in white barber shops and black barber shops, around white water coolers and black water coolers, and that we are neither free from our prejudices nor merely prejudiced in our respective grievances, and that in both our prejudices and our grievances, we have more in common than we know.

With the exception of commentators who pride themselves on their bigotry, the speech drew immediate, nearly universal acclaim, and I suspect that its lasting impact will mirror its initial impact. But as the great French sociologist Emil Durkheim described it, we live our lives in the realm of the profane, punctuated by moments of sanctity, only to return again to everyday life. And by nightfall, as I listened to reports of the speech on television, many of the talking heads had returned to the realm of the literal, the crass, and the profane: Did he distance himself enough from Reverend Wright? Did he condemn his former pastor enough to reassure white voters?

But the speech wasn't about Reverend Wright, even though the controversy surrounding pieces of his sermons was the impetus for it. Obama delivered a message that spoke to the conflicts and contradictions around race that have existed since the earliest days of this nation, and he delivered it in a personal way that spoke to his own history and his own complex response to his pastor's messages over many years. The speech brought to mind a passage written by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson a half century ago in his psychobiography of Martin Luther, which could just as easily have been written last night. Erikson was describing that ineffable quality we call charisma, and the way an individual life history sometimes converges with the historical moment: "Now and again," Erikson wrote, "an individual is called upon (called upon by whom, only theologians claim to know, and by what only bad psychologists)," to lift his personal conflicts to the level of cultural conflicts, "and to try to solve for all what he could not solve for himself alone."

Obama clearly hadn't wanted to make this election about race. But the events of the last week led him to do what the nation has long needed to do: to have the kind of open conversation about race that Republicans have avoided because they've preferred to exploit it and Democrats have avoided because they've tended to fear it. We can't solve problems we can't talk about, and our better angels on race tend to be our conscious values. As numerous commentators described it, Obama led us to our better angels.

But from a political standpoint, at least as important as the primary message of his speech was a series of meta-messages he conveyed as much through his actions as his words. Obama's speech was in many respects a rejoinder to a number of questions raised about him over the last few weeks that contributed to defeats in Ohio and Texas.

Is he a moving orator who speaks pretty lines but lacks substance? No one can seriously ask that question today, after Obama offered the most eloquent, intellectually penetrating, and most moving description of the complexities of race in America of any politician in recent history. But he did more than talk about race. He began to build a progressive narrative that Democrats, and the progressive movement more broadly, have had difficulty developing. He offered a progressive vision of patriotism, integrating a more traditional view -- referring to his grandfather's service under General Patton, and the military service of Reverend Wright -- with the notion that love of country is not blind love, that forming a more perfect union -- the essence of progressivism -- is part of what it means to love one's country.

Does he have the courage, capacity, and cojones to lead? Yesterday, he led us as a nation, and he showed a firm, steady, and unflinching hand. Not only did he utter words most Democratic politicians don't speak in polite company but should have spoken years ago, but he refused to take the low road -- to denounce and cast aside someone who clearly matters dearly to him simply because he had become a political liability -- displaying both courage and conviction.

Is he really a Muslim, not just foreign but an "Islamo-fascist" in sheep's clothing? No one listening to his speech could come away with anything but the message that he is not only a Christian but a person who takes his faith seriously. He spoke of how Reverend Wright had "helped introduce me to my Christian faith" and baptized his children, and how he had preached about the importance of "doing God's work here on earth." Yet he condemned his former pastor for seeing "the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

And time will tell if he answered one last question: Can he win the respect, and ultimately the votes, of white males, and particularly working class males, in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania? I suspect his speech may have reopened a dialog with, if not the minds of, the kinds of voters he had won over in states like Wisconsin but began to lose for a number of reasons: Hillary Clinton's obvious command of economic issues in a time of increasing economic desperation, the fact that voters associate the Clinton name with eight years of economic growth between two disastrous Bushes, and Obama's resistance to swinging back when his opponent was throwing punches, which voters (particularly male voters) tend to take as a sign of weakness. But the meaning of Obama's loyalty to his pastor in the face of enormous pressure to cast him aside is not likely to be lost on white males who value strength, courage, honor, and loyalty. Nor is an aspect of his life story many Americans may not have known, about the role played by his two white working-class grandparents in his upbringing; or his criticism of the failures of fatherhood in the inner cities; or his willingness to speak openly about the seething resentments of the millions of white men who punch a time card every day, feel increasingly unable to provide for their families as the price of gas skyrockets and heath care moves beyond their reach, and who don't view themselves as all that privileged.

Drew Westen professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

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