Huffpost Politics
Thomas B. Edsall Headshot

Obama's Race Speech: Did He Win Over White Swing-Voters?

Posted: Updated:

Barack Obama's Tuesday speech directly addressing the controversy over his former pastor Jeremiah Wright -- and addressing as well broader issues of race and politics -- was, by all accounts, a major success. The Illinois senator forced to the surface controversies that have plagued Democrats for decades, creating an opening for the party to promote its agenda with less danger of stumbling over wedge issues.

In the view of most observers, Obama's address is likely to strengthen his bid for the nomination, demonstrating his ability to confront divisive issues of major importance to both blacks and whites within the Democratic coalition.

Left unresolved, however, is whether Obama has effectively dealt with the concerns that Reverend Wright's controversial comments -- "The government gives them [African Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strikes law and then wants us to sing 'God bless America"; "No, no, no, not 'God bless America,' God damn America" -- have raised among general election swing voters -- moderate-to-conservative working and middle class whites, a group that has been crucial to the outcome of past presidential contests.

African American political scientist Michael Dawson of the University of Chicago, one of the nation's leading experts on race and politics, called the address "a brilliant and comprehensive speech, perhaps the most comprehensive speech on race by a presidential candidate in probably at least a couple of decades."

He cautioned, however: "While I think [Obama's] combination of recounting his personal history and his own understanding of contemporary racialized social and political dynamics was sincere, substantive, and thorough, I wonder if it would be convincing to the middle class and working-class segments of the white community."

John Judis, author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, who has written extensively about the partisan leanings of a variety of demographic groups, said:

"It was a wonderful speech. Very gracious. I liked the fact that he didn't throw Wright to the dogs and didn't blame the racial fracas on Hillary. But I liked it for myself. Politically, I am not sure it addressed the people he needs to win over. Obama still talks as if the country is divided between black and white. I know he does the litany of black-white-brown-red-yellow, but it's not a reality to him that blacks are now a minority within a minority. There was nothing in that speech that spoke to Latinos. As for the white guy still not ready to contemplate a black president, his approach was largely academic -- about 'their' resentments against welfare in the '80s. He didn't speak TO them. His last example was telling. A 23-year-old Obama supporter. Not someone that any of these constituencies could identify with. He is still fundamentally a candidate of the professional classes who were products of the civil rights movement. He hasn't made that step beyond that he would need to make to win a majority in November."

For Ruy Teixeira, co-author with Judis of The Emerging Democratic Majority, Obama's words hit the bulls' eye: "Very positive. He said all the right things necessary to connect this brouhaha back to the central theme and theory of his campaign: transcending racial and ideological divisions to unite America and solve problems."

Unlike Judis, Teixeira contended that Obama's "discussion of the resentments of the white working class was particularly good--his assessment of where they came from and what they really represent (certainly not simple racism) was spot on and I think will find a receptive audience among these voters. If they hear it, that is to say."

Conservatives were less generous in their assessment.

Writing on National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford's Hoover Institution argued that "to Obama, the postmodernist, context is everything. We all have eccentric and flamboyant pastors like Wright with whom we disagree. And words, in his case, don't quite mean what we think; unspoken intent and angst, not voiced hatred, are what matters more. Rather than account for his relationship with a hate-monger, Obama will enlighten you, as your teacher, why you are either confused or too ill-intended to ask him to disassociate himself from Wright."

On the progressive end of the ideological spectrum, David Corn, Washington Bureau Chief for Mother Jones, wrote, "[W]ith this address, Obama presented a candid approach to race. Still, there's no telling if this will help him in his fierce battle with Hillary Clinton--let alone in a general election, should he secure the Democratic presidential nomination. ...With this speech--and throughout his campaign--as he merges his own story with the story of race in America, he is presenting himself also as 'black and more than black.' And that is a story with no ending yet."

Darren Davis, a Notre Dame political scientist, was much less equivocal. "I thought Obama's speech was incredible. I think it will resonate with middle-class white voters. Specifically, Obama acknowledged the resentment of whites and how they, too, are victims of divisive politics, globalized markets, and opportunistic media pundits."

The most effusive of all, however, was Hardball's Chris Matthews, speaking on camera:

"A speech worthy of Abraham Lincoln....what I personally view as the best speech ever given on race in this country. One that went beyond "I have a dream," to "I have lived the dream but have also lived in this country...." It grabbed me. It was ripping the scab off in a good way.... This is the kind of speech that first graders should see, people in the last year of college should see before they go out in the world."