Here is the complete text of Barack Obama’s speech today.
I don’t know if there’s a name in rhetoric for taking a given topic and making it fit your argument, but it’s frequently done, and Barack Obama does it masterfully today in his speech on race. There’s no doubt that this is a speech on race – but it’s really not, it’s an argument about what Barack Obama’s campaign is really about (which clearly transcends race).
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It seems to me one of the more telling lines in the speech is, after a discussion of the black community, in a discussion of the disillusionment of the “white community,” where “opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.” In some ways that line could be called the crux of Barack Obama’s campaign argument. Obama hasn’t been that far off from Hillary Clinton in domestic policy, if he’s more conservative in his health care approach, Obama’s economic policy is either slightly more progressive or slightly more conservative than Clinton’s, depending on whom you read and what they’re emphasizing. Being close to Clinton policy is anything but “audacious.” What Obama pitches to voters is that “dreams” of progress are not chips in a “zero sum game” – but the stirrings of a movement to make progressive change happen. Barack Obama argues that he is the candidate that offers the best hope for this movement – but that the realizing the policies inspired by hope requires a movement. It’s not an easy sell. It requires a certain amount of faith, even after the more progressive candidates in the race have dropped out, to pick Obama over Clinton with so few concrete policy differences. What Obama is banking on is that his message is right for the times, and whatever else you may say about Barack Obama, he offers compelling rhetoric, a compelling story and is careful as a former community organizer to recognize that the movement is about “us” and not just the leadership – perhaps Barack Obama’s strongest contrast with Hillary Clinton. Barack ended his speech today along these lines with a story about how his campaign is really about a movement informed by need, inspired by hope and positioned for change:
“There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.
Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.
Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign…. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, ‘I am here because of Ashley.’”
A movement informed by need, inspired by hope and positioned for change. Barack Obama offers the audacity of hope – but says that the audacity of change requires a movement, by which he means us. Barack’s policy offerings are modest – too modest for his critique of what ails America – but the potential of a progressive movement to change American is the difference in the offerings between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. There’s no doubt Barack Obama has inspired the support of a tremendous number of Americas – they have made the difference in his campaign’s volunteer mobilization and fundraising efforts. I believe they are the reason that Barack Obama becomes the next president of the United States. The question is what kind of a difference will Barack Obama and his supporters make after his election. On that question I remain hopeful – but I wish I could say more.