Was This Obama's Best Speech Yet? Maybe.

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THE PLANK JANUARY 26, 2008

Was This Obama's Best Speech Yet? Maybe.

I'll
leave the sophisticated electoral analysis to my more sophisticated colleagues, Noam and Mike.  But I have to say something about Obama's speech, which is the
best I've seen him give in a while, if not the entire campaign.
That's a high standard, I know, but I think it's true.

Tonight's
address was every bit as lyrical as the speech Obama gave in Iowa.
And it touched on many of the same themes, about healing division and
building a movement of voters seeking change. But those themes weren't as
front-and-center as they were earlier in the month. Instead, Obama put more
emphasis on the movement's purpose – for delivering real, tangible
things like health insurance, better schools, and higher paying jobs.

Obama
also took a direct jab at the Bush Administration – which isn't as typical for him as you might think. Quite in contrast to
Clinton and Edwards, Obama doesn't tend to dwell on Bush and the Republicans. His speeches are all
about changing Washington, ending partisan bickering, and such. This
time, I thought it noteworthy that one of his first lines was a
more direct criticism: “All of us share an abiding desire to end the
disastrous policies of the current administration.”

Of
course, that was a lead-in to a more pointed discussion of Clinton's –
or, I should say, the Clintons' – tactics of recent days: "We are
looking for more than just a change of party in the White House. We're
looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington - a status quo that
extends beyond any particular party. And right now, that status quo
is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics
that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face,
whether those problems are health care they can't afford or a
mortgage they cannot pay." [Emphasis mine.]Later Obama confronted the
experience issue head-on: “We are up against the conventional
thinking that says your ability to lead as President comes from
longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House. But we know
that real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability
to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose - a
higher purpose.” And while I continue to worry that Obama is naive about the nature of Washington politics -- and the kind of opposition his ideas will provoke in Republicans -- I couldn't help but chuckle when he criticized “the kind of partisanship where you're not
even allowed to say that a Republican had an idea -- even if it's one
you never agreed with.”

To my
ears, the best passage of all came towards the end:

And what
we've seen in these last weeks is that we're also up against forces
that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that
prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation. It's the
politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon.
A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote
within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The
assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that
Republicans won't cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care
nothing for the poor, and that the poor don't vote. The assumption
that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites
can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos
can't come together.

But we
are here tonight to say that this is not the America we believe in.
I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white
South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina. I saw
crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and
white children. I saw shuttered mills and homes for sale that once
belonged to Americans from all walks of life, and men and women of
every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and
bleed together under the same proud flag. I saw what America is, and
I believe in what this country can be.”

Note how
this section ties the unity theme to the struggles of average
Americans. Note how it salutes patriotism. And note how it puts efforts
to divide the voters by race in their proper place, alongside efforts
to turn religion and patriotism into wedge issues.

Throughout these sections -- indeed, throughout the entire speech -- Obama never said the word
“Clinton.”  It wasn't necessary. This was a defiant, if cool, speech -- one
that challenged his opponents even as it called upon the idealism of
his supporters.

You can't judge a candidate on one speech, any more than you can evaluate a candidacy's prospects based on one night's returns. But
tonight's remarks certainly suggest that Obama can get tough
when he has to be, which is something a lot of people (myself included) have questioned from time to time.

--Jonathan
Cohn

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