Barack Obama's March 18th speech on race in America was game-changing, and very likely will be remembered as historic. Here's why.
In electoral politics -- particularly presidential politics -- people don't vote based on the issues or positions of the candidates. They vote based on their assessment of the qualities of the candidate. Their votes have much more to do with their assessment of candidate character than on 10 point programs.
The videos of the sermons delivered by Barack Obama's former pastor, Reverend Wright, presented problems for his candidacy because they caused voters to question three key candidate qualities that are central to Obama's narrative as to why he should be president.
Most profoundly they caused doubt among white voters as to whether Obama was "on their side" -- the threshold question of all politics. Ironically, the potential that he might completely disown Reverend Wright, raised the same question among African Americans.
Second, voters want leaders who have strongly-held core values. They don't want leaders who tell them one thing but believe something else -- or even worse, have no core values except their own desire to be elected. The Wright videos caused voters to question whether, as they believed, Obama was indeed committed to the core values of unity and hope that have been the central themes of his candidacy.
Third, voters want leaders who are strong, effective leaders -- leaders who can respond to crisis with cool, decisive, effective action. The videos had put Obama on the defensive for days. In politics, when you're on the defensive, you're losing. The crisis put Obama to the test. How, they wondered, would he respond?
With his speech in Philadelphia, Obama passed all of these tests of character -- and more.
His speech made it clear to all who listened that he was absolutely "on their side." He demonstrated a knowledge and empathy for both sides of the racial equation. His speech rang true to African Americans who grew up in the segregated America of the '50s and '60s. But it also rang true to white ethnics who have had to struggle for everything in life and whose jobs are now being outsourced to Southeast Asia.
Rather than a posture of moral superiority, he affirmed the legitimacy of both sides' anger and called on Americans to unite against the forces that have historically stifled the aspirations of both groups and fanned the flames of hatred and division.
He reminded everyone that as the son of an African father and a white mother from Kansas, he is the personal embodiment of an America where everyone is on the same side.
While Obama forcefully dissociated himself from Reverend Wright's remarks, his unwillingness to dissociate himself from his former pastor personally was a convincing testament that he passes the fundamental test of whether someone is on your side: whether or not he is a loyal friend -- even when the chips are down. Obama's speech made clear that while he is absolutely ready to stand firmly against positions with which he disagrees, he is not the kind of person who will throw someone under the bus to advance his own career. It communicated the unmistakable message that he is on our side for keeps.
Second, more than ever, Obama's speech gave insight into his commitment to the core values of unity and hope -- coupled with the even more fundamental values of empathy and responsibility. He demonstrated that he has the empathy to understand what motivates people in the direction of division and anger. And he also demonstrated his commitment to take responsibility to address and resolve racial tension rather than simply ignoring those divisions on the one hand or fanning their flames on the other.
Third, Obama showed America what strong effective leadership is all about. In the face of a crisis that could have sunk his candidacy, he was cool, decisive and bold. Over the objections of some in his own high command he personally made the most critical decision of his campaign and executed it with skill and confidence.
Barack Obama showed America that he is the guy you want answering the red phone at 3AM.
But Obama's speech gave us insight into two other critical qualities as well.
Obama talked to Americans as adults. He presented a serious, no-holds-barred discussion of race in America. He showed he trusted the voters. Voters don't want leaders who patronize them like children -- who pander or sloganeer. They want leaders who treat them with respect.
Finally, Obama demonstrated once again the power of inspiration. He showed us again that inspiration can overcome fear. When leaders inspire us they call on us to be more than we are; they call on us to be the best we can be. Obama didn't lecture or moralize. He declared his commitment to lead America to overcome racial division and hatred -- to be all that we can be.
In the end, it is his ability to inspire us -- to call on us all to be part of something bigger than ourselves -- to sacrifice for our common future -- that has the potential of making Barack Obama a transformational figure -- both in America and on the world stage.
The character of a leader appears in the greatest relief when he is tested. All of us who watched his speech yesterday saw firsthand why Barack Obama should be President of the United States.
Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight. How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.
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