03/19/2008 07:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

On Obama's Race Speech

Well, there it is. If you are one of those folks who has been watching Barack Obama bring audiences to their feet with platitudes like "stand up for hope," while you yourself wonder who this guy really is and what does he really stand for, today was your day. Few politicians have ever spelled out in such heartfelt detail exactly what they stand for in the way Obama did today.

The standard politician response to the media hoopla over Wright's sermons would have been to "repudiate" Wright (whatever that actually means). Instead, Obama initially said something about Wright being part of his "family," and that we all have disagreements with family members but we don't kick them out of the family.

And I thought, well, that's a principled thing to say, but I don't at all know if it is going to fly in the context of a national presidential campaign. After all, "God damn America" is pretty toxic stuff for someone who wants to be President of the U.S. in the age of fundamentalist terrorism both Islamic and Christian.

But then Obama raised the stakes many notches by announcing he was going to use the whole fiasco as an opportunity to discuss race and maybe educate some people about the black community, and why it might not be so unreasonable for Wright to say such things. In Pennsylvania he was going to do this. Right before what will likely be the deciding primary. The guy's got guts.

Now he has done it.

The most important part of the speech is this:

"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country."

This is a level at which politicians simply don't speak in this country. It is not a "repudiation" or some other fashionable but empty word from American political-speak that politicians hide behind. It is a serious critique of the thinking of Obama's former pastor. Obama does not condemn him for being extreme or for being angry, but for having a static view of society that ultimately doesn't lead to change. And then Obama used this critique to frame his counter-argument and to explain yet again his vision of how change happens.

Another interesting thing about the speech: there is not a sound byte in it. It was simply not crafted according to the norms of American electoral politics. Rather, it was what the guy actually wanted to say.

Before the speech, I anticipated that we would be left with the question of whether a black man who addresses race directly be elected president. Having heard the speech, I now think the question it raises is much bigger: can anyone who speaks to the American people so thoughtfully about matters of actual substance win a national election?