Hillary Clinton has long argued that Barack Obama is so new to politics, so utterly untested, that he is likely to be destroyed by a Republican attack machine that only she has mastered. Because most polls show Obama consistently defeating John McCain, Clinton's only electability argument lies in questioning Obama's capacity for defense.
But the exposure of Jeremiah Wright's inexcusable comments, and the racial divisiveness they have engendered, has provided Obama with an opportunity -- the chance to be profoundly tested and to prove his readiness.
The speech delivered yesterday morning was a masterpiece. For all the praise Obama receives for his symphonic rhetorical skills, it was its content, not its delivery, that moved the audience.
Obama spoke of race in a way that no politician has, confronting its history and the depth of its impact. He illuminated the timeline of injustice that has robbed so much from the black community, but made sure to empathize with working class whites, few of whom have reason to see their race as offering any advantage. He cast himself as a uniquely capable steward, a man from both backgrounds with membership in both communities. He was honest and open, compelling and eloquent, all while addressing wounds that can be traced to our founding.
It is of little surprise that a number of commentators have compared the speech to "I Have a Dream," perhaps the only other speech of its kind. In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking to the AFL-CIO, assured us that "the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." After Obama's speech yesterday, it is hard not to imagine that arc bending on a forty year timeline, from the words of Dr. King through the candidacy of Barack Obama.
Obama proved that his capacity for leadership is profound. What was viewed as a potentially fatal political problem only days ago has become the master stroke of his candidacy. It was a speech full of answers, not just about his relationship to Reverend Wright, or the state of race in America, but about the kind of new politics we can expect from his presidency. More than just a new way of legislating, Obama is professing a new kind of leadership, the kind that acts for and expects much of its people, the kind that is willing to confront issues that would be otherwise ignored. It is about this new conversation of race, and the other new conversations to follow.
His speech also serves as proof that, contrary to the claims of the Clinton campaign, Obama has a dramatic capacity for political defense. Little more than twenty four hours ago, Obama faced a seemingly impossible political crisis, one some had suggested could be fatal. With a single speech, he clarified his relationship to Reverend Wright, appeared especially presidential, and began a discourse on race that may be the first next step in the evolution of race relations. It was artful and honest, with near perfect pitch. Could there be any skill one would prefer from the candidate in their corner?