The Real Comeback Kid

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, March 27, 2008)

When Barack Obama took that podium in Philadelphia last week, he delivered one of the best speeches in a young political career already full of strong contenders.

It was a frank discussion of America’s racial past and the ways it continues to poison our politics today. It hit on Obama’s campaign themes of bringing America together and getting past the knee-jerk divides of the recent generation of leaders. Far more groundbreaking than the well-argued content itself was the simple fact this speech came from a frontrunner for a major party’s nomination, a vessel through which such discussion of a topic as self-evident but taboo as racism has rarely been delivered. One has to go back to Robert Kennedy’s remarks in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination to truly find an equivalent.

“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together,” Obama said in what could be the thesis statement of his candidacy, “unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction — towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.”

It’s not hyperbolic to suggest “A More Perfect Union” was the kind of address that will appear in history books if Obama’s presidential bid is a successful one.

Almost lost in the initial burst of discussion generated by Obama’s address is how the speech underscored an often overlooked and underrated — but crucial — component of his candidacy. It again proved Obama’s ability to respond to attacks and controversies quickly, effectively and without dragging his discourse down to his opponents’ level. It’s an approach that served him well in state government (the near decade of experience the Clinton campaign tends to forget he has). It worked well in his Democratic Senate primary in 2004, when he was running a distant third with just weeks before the election, and has worked again this year. He doesn’t attack back, but always responds without seeming defensive. Throughout his career, he’s always become more popular as voters learn more about him, a rare quality in his profession.

Democrats just suffered through national campaigns in which John Kerry and Al Gore — both good men with good ideas — let their opponents falsely define them, respectively, as a flip-flopping coward who’s chronically out of touch and a self-aggrandizing blowhard in the pocket of China who lets consultants change everything from his image to his daily wardrobe.

So it exemplifies understatement to say Obama’s ability to parry opponents’ thrusts on his terms is a welcome change.

Take the brouhaha over Geraldine Ferraro’s ridiculous assertion that somehow Obama’s skin color is the only reason he’s faring so well in the race (white men, after all, are only 43-for-43 in the becoming-president category).

Obama didn’t demand a resignation, as Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson and several of her Congressional supporters did when Samantha Power made the even more innocuous comment that Clinton’s campaign tactics were those of a “monster.” (Never mind that Power is one of the world’s leading experts on genocide — which makes her a particularly valuable voice given the government’s lack of attention to Darfur — or that, unlike in Ferraro’s case, Power tried to take her comment back just seconds after saying it). But Obama also didn’t let the news cycle end without a reply, treating Ferraro’s comments as the misguided silliness they were.

“If you pulled out a handbook of how to weigh your assets and liabilities in a presidential race — I don’t think my name or my skin color would be in the asset column,” he responded. When asked by reporters if he thought Ferraro was a racist, Obama refused to take the bait, replying, “I’m always hesitant to throw around words like ‘racist.’ I don’t think she intended them in that way.”

The same thing happened when Hillary Clinton effectively endorsed John McCain over her fellow Democrat, saying she and McCain have the necessary experience and Obama doesn’t. (Clinton’s specious claims to experience are a whole other matter). Again, a quick and respectful response came, with Obama saying all three of them are more than qualified and that voters should decide based on the candidates’ individual judgment, with a reminder that he’s the only one of the three who didn’t vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

And again when both Bill and Hillary Clinton suggested Obama would make a great vice president for a Clinton ticket, Obama first gently mocked the idea that a candidate who keeps claiming he isn’t experienced enough to be president would deem him worthy of a running-mate spot. Then, in another nice bit of campaign jujitsu, he flipped the argument to point out that he is leading in the delegate count, the number of states won, and the popular vote. In other words, that Clinton offering the clear frontrunner the second slot would be like another coffee chain offering to let Starbucks carry its drinks.

These days, Obama is parodied by everyone from “Saturday Night Live” to Hillary Clinton herself (including the jaw-droppingly condescending “the lights will come down, celestial choirs will be singing” speech in February) for using far-reaching language that’s inspiring but general. So it’s easy to forget that the main criticism of him a year ago was the exact opposite — that he was too wonky, too professorial, too detailed in describing his policy proposals. Where other candidates might change their ideas, Obama merely changed the way he communicated them, letting detailed reports on his Web site and in his most recent book answer those questions, while his speeches focused on the big picture. Again, replying to critics without compromising himself.

So far, “A More Perfect Union” looks like the piece de resistance of Obama’s skill in this arena. At a time when right-wing blogs, television pundits, and YouTube were disseminating the inflammatory rhetoric of his former pastor as a way of smearing him by proxy, Obama needed a good response.

Instead, he pulled off a brilliant one. He refused to take the coward’s route of distancing himself from Jeremiah Wright the man, instead making common cause with all those who’ve heard comments from the pulpit they personally disavow. (And anyone shocked that a pastor could say something so asinine about contemporary politics has probably not been paying much attention to their own pulpit for a very long time). Rather than ignore the controversy, he used the opportunity to talk about the veiled racial tension that’s simmered throughout this primary season. The speech was honest and high-minded, and its straightforward delivery again found the senator rising above controversy by meeting it head on.

“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect,” he said. “And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”

There are plenty of reasons for Americans to get excited about Barack Obama. For Democrats, one big reason is that he stands up to his critics. Where some in the party bend backward or stoop to an opponent’s level, he’s spent the past few months proving to the nation that he can keep his spine in the upright position. Right where it belongs.

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