Director of the Center for Politics
University of Virginia
It's indisputable that this was a serious speech about the incendiary topic of race in America. Obama was performing his high-wire act, trying to appear black enough for the African-American community and post-racial enough for white voters. That's as tough a task as exists in American politics, and one speech alone will never accomplish it. But if he is to win the nomination and the general election, he has to engage voters in this dialogue, and the sooner the better. He's started down that road, and he has to continue. Whether he likes it or not, and whether Americans generally like it or not, race is a big part of this election, and it has been at least since the election result in New Hampshire.
From Obama's perspective, it's much better to have this discussion now. In fact, the debate about race was inevitable at some point. I would argue that race isn't just another issue; it is THE issue of American history. He actually needs to have the racial debate continue until it exhausts the media and the electorate as a whole. If he has to confront racial division in October in a major way, he will lose the election. By October, he needs to have the media and voters say, "We've already finished with this subject. What about Iraq? What about the economy?"
An extraordinary speech not because of any rhetorical flourishes, but because it was honest, frank, measured in tone, inclusive and hopeful. I don't know whether it will be sufficient to stem a racial backlash against his candidacy, but he clearly demonstrated today his capacity to lead public opinion and not simply be a slave to it. Indeed, I would say he appeared wise beyond his years and genuinely presidential.
Donald F. Kettl
Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor
University of Pennsylvania
It was a stirring speech that reached back to the founding in Philadelphia but then also challenged everyone to continue to move forward in the future. It was truly a transcendent speech and a remarkable piece of oratory. Obama made a few excursions across the racial divide, to connect the concerns of black Americans with the needs of unemployed white men and underemployed white women. He also focused on the need for self-help, which was an indirect challenge to an earlier generation of welfare policies.
Rather than put race behind him, he put it more at the center of the campaign. The strategy is clear: if a whispering campaign on race threatened problems for his campaign and disunity for the country, better to attack the issue head-on and then try to redefine it. He brought it back around to his central theme of change and folded the black experience into his broader message. It's a stunning effort: both to expose the seamy elements of racism to public view and to redefine the issue for the future as the challenge of building opportunity. The bigger challenge is whether the message will resonate with white working class Pennsylvanians, especially white men who have proven one of the toughest political nuts for the Obama campaign to crack. That's a much bigger problem, and it will take time to sort out how this speech plays out against centuries of racial tensions that have been part of Pennsylvania politics. After all, there's one town York that surrendered to the South before the battle of Gettysburg, and the mayor of Hazelton has campaigned on immigration in a way that has carried racial overtones.
The more Obama can more on from here to couple his portrait of race to the broader challenge of economic opportunity, the more he'll bridge the racial divide on a philosophical level and succeed in making connections with white voters on the political level.
Political Science Professor
Obama's speech was brave. He is trying to take an actual position, rather than just distance himself from the Rev. Wright, who is clearly a political liability. But I think he is being naive. There are just too many easy attack ads, piling up in the Republican library. (Michelle Obama: "For the first time in my adult life, I'm proud of my country." Rev. Wright: "God DAMN America.") Maybe it's a shame that you have to try to exhibit a treacly, shallow patriotism to be President. But John Kerry got hammered just for protesting the Vietnam War, a war that George W. Bush ducked. A black candidate named Barack Hussein Obama can't have questions about his patriotism, and commitment to America, not if he is going to beat a genuine war hero. I think Obama is unelectable. He had to distance himself far from Wright. Instead, he was brave.
Susan B. Hansen
Professor, Department of Political Science
University of Pittsburgh
I'm afraid the dilemma for Obama is that the more he talks about race being unimportant or transcended, the more important it will become to the media and voters' perceptions. And even if he can move beyond it in PA and Hillary never mentions it, the Republicans and various shadowy 501(c)4 campaign groups will be hounding the issue and replaying those videos between now and November. I also question Obama's claim that on occasion most churchgoers "strongly disagree" with sermons by their priests/pastors. Those who do usually find another congregation or replace the controversial minister!