Sunday, May 29, 2016

Summing up Obama: revisiting Rev. Wright and the race speech


Since we're enduring an election, I'm giving a lot of attention to 538 Politics, the site where Nate Silver has landed his "data journalism" under ESPN auspices. Silver's choice of conglomerate overlord is appropriate; much of 538's coverage reads like ephemeral sports trivia. But occasionally they produce fascinating insights bringing to bear the sort of stats mojo in which they specialize.

In this vein, I want to recommend a podcast and documentary video looking back to the 2008 campaign, Inside The Five-Day Stretch When Obama Found His Voice On Race. This tells the story of the moment in that campaign when major media spotlighted some of Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright's sermons which were not complimentary about U.S. national pretensions to global moral preeminence. Obama responded with his More Perfect Union speech in Philadelphia and commentators declared that he'd managed to push the racial camel through eye of the public's needle about his potential presidency.

The 538 gang, assisted by senior writer Farai Chideya, have produced a fascinating look back at whether, in fact, that moment in the campaign really deserves to have been seen as the turning point many of us thought it was at the time. On simple data grounds, they suspect not.

Harry Enten: This is the funny thing about studying events in real time — it’s difficult to disentangle one thing from another. For instance, John McCain had his largest lead of the campaign against Obama right around the time of the controversy, but was that because of Wright or because McCain clinched the nomination around the same time? I honestly don’t know.

farai: I also think we in the media sometimes think we’re more influential than we are. Not everyone watches wall-to-wall politics coverage. And network news ratings have been declining for years. So although this was a huge firestorm in the media, I also wonder how deeply it saturated the electorate. ...

harry: To Farai’s point, a CBS News poll taken during the controversy found that 28 percent had heard a lot about the Rev. Wright’s statements. That compares to 23 percent who had heard nothing at all about it. Most had heard some, not much or nothing at all.

So, outside the media, most people had either already formed their opinions of Obama, for good or ill, or weren't listening. Yet, they still find much to be learned from this episode:

natesilver: It showed us a little bit about how Obama stayed cool under pressure instead of wetting the bed. ...

Micah Cohen: … the response to Wright was an early sign that there would be a not insignificant group of Americans who would traffic in these race-freighted “controversies” regarding Obama, right?

farai: First off, there has never been a moment in American history when race didn’t matter … just more and less contentious moments. ...nonetheless, once Obama was elected, there was a period of racial detente, followed by a backlash. A 2010 Gallup poll found 13 percent of Americans said they were greatly worried about race relations; today that figure is 35 percent. ...

Mike Fletcher: And let’s face it, the clips of Rev. Wright’s most inflammatory sermons played into a fear narrative. If the question of whether or not Obama wore a flag pin was news, this was certainly going to be a running story. In a perfect world, it would have been presented in the context of black church traditions, but …

harry: What’s interesting here that gets lost now and may get lost to a younger generation is that this election was a pretty big freaking deal. ...Obama ... was not only likely to be the first non-white major party nominee, but he also had a very good shot at the presidency. And then here comes a story that plays in to the worst fears of a certain segment of white voters, who saw Wright as radical on race and thought maybe he could be offering advice to the next president. The fact that voters saw through that and trusted Obama was a turning point that I’m not sure would have been accomplished 15 years earlier, when a majority of Americans still didn’t believe in interracial marriage.

My strictly anecdotal memories of these events are naturally very different; having long been exposed to the Black theology of liberation via Dr. James Cone, Wright's views were unsurprising. But I certainly was anxious -- would white people freak out? The smooth competence Obama displayed in defusing this moment convinced me of his political gifts -- and left me bemused and frustrated when he couldn't seem to summon such capacity at many later moments in his presidency.

This podcast is an early entry in a "Summing Up" genre that we're going to see a lot of as Barack Obama leaves office. What did the rise and incumbency of this extraordinary figure mean, if anything enduring? I expect to write many entries about these items here, some less approving than this one.

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