He explained black anger—especially that of an older, scarred generation—to white Americans. And he explained white anger, resentment over reverse discrimination, to blacks. As good speakers do, he pointed forward with a message of reconciliation. Intriguingly, he did not principally do so through an explicit appeal to government programs that would unite working class voters of all races, so much as through his own story. The legacy of racial hatred, he seemed to argue, was especially generational—and his own success pointed to a less divisive future.
The media reaction to the speech was powerful and positive across party lines. "I thought Barack Obama's speech was strong, thoughtful and important," Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "Rather beautifully, it was a speech to think to, not clap to." In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter evoked Thomas Jefferson's line that race is "a firebell in the night." "The bravest thing Obama did in his historic speech at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia was to ring the bell louder," Alter wrote. "He chose to focus on an uncomfortable topic that most Americans would rather leave unspoken." New Yorker columnist Hendrik Hertzberg, himself a former speechwriter, noted, "It was not defensive. It did not overcompensate. In its combination of objectivity and empathy, it persuaded Americans of all colors that he understood them." The speech was posted in its entirely on YouTube; within a day, it was viewed 1.6 million times.
For all the praise, the speech was not unprecedented. Lyndon Johnson told a Southern crowd that he was sick of white politicians who shouted "nigger" at election time. Bill Clinton gave the same speech to inner-city voters in Detroit and "White Flight" voters in Macomb County, Michigan, on the same day, to challenge both groups to move past racial division. (His remedy was policy, such as national health reform, rather than his own personal story.)
But few political leaders have spoken so precisely and eloquently, with such honesty, about race—and especially not at such a moment of political peril. Obama took what could have been yet another campaign crash and used it to elevate the nation's approach to a difficult issue. His calm amid a political storm became a hallmark and a harbinger. This, in itself, was seen as a harbinger of what his presidency could be.
Wright did not fade away. After more public angry statements from Wright, Obama was forced to renounce him altogether. But the issue did not really hurt Obama's prospects further. John McCain, his Republican opponent, never raised Wright as a topic. On election night, seventy thousand filled Chicago's Grant Park, the site of the riots that tore apart the Democratic Convention forty years earlier. Obama won 52 percent of the vote, the largest share for a Democrat in a half century. In his speech that night, his reference to the astounding racial breakthrough was subtle but unmistakable, as historian Josh Gottheimer notes an allusion to the great civil rights song by Sam Cooke: "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."
"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."