Obama’s Race Speech: Critically Acclaimed Flop, Or Ballot Box Office Gold?

walter-2.jpg Civilizer

I don’t want to spend any time here rehashing, commenting, or otherwise opining on Barack Obama’s reallybigspeech on race he gave this week.  Everybody in the American PoliticoDrome with a microphone or a blog or a ham radio has already graded the Illinois Senator and have largely settled on the same conclusion: “Nailed It!”

After Obama ended the speech, a brief content analysis ensued, and since then we’ve been hearing the media say, essentially, the the address was the single greatest collection of words in English since The Beatles White Album, only more lyrical.  Nicholas Kristof, for example, proclaimed it “the best political speech since John Kennedy talked about his Catholicism…It was not a sound bite, but a symphony.”  The Los Angeles Times, comparing Obama to Lincoln and his speech to the 16th president’s “House Divided” speech, said “Sen. Barack Obama, another lanky lawyer from Illinois, planted one of those rhetorical markers in the political landscape Tuesday.” 

So it’s unanimous, Obama’s speech was an oratorical masterstroke.  But here’s what I’m more interested in:  did it work?

A feature of America’s politics is an odd bifurcation:  the proliferation of 24-hour news networks has created a small chattering class – people who either have their own TV shows or people whose job it is to make 5 minute soundbite-laden appearances on those shows – and the rest of the public.  The news networks have to fill all that air time somehow, so they bring in all these pundits, and panels of pundits, and they spend literally hours dissecting an event like Obama’s speech or the New Hampshire primary.  The news channels seem to have modeled themselves on the Sunday afternoon NFL pre-game shows, or ESPN…lots of analysis and banter about a single topic that will play out on its own, in reality, entirely independent of what was said on TV.  Dan Marino can talk all he wants about the importance of containing L.T., and how the 3-4 defense plays into that goal, but it’s quite likely that Philip Rivers is going to be the guy driving the offense and stopping the run will never come into play.  The 24-hour news complex is a lot like that.  Stuff happens, they talk about it, and stuff continues to happen.

This dynamic is interesting to me because these talking heads are the only people who have any kind of a mass-audience reach, which naturally lends their position to that of national political arbiters.  They are the experts, we’re meant to understand, they are the ones who spend their day studying this politics thing, this for gosh sakes is their job.  But coming home from work and turning on Hardball, or Countdown, or The Situation Room(just kidding on that one), you can’t help but get the feeling as the campaign drags on that these people truly are talking in a vaccum.  They get an event like this latest speech on race in America, they make very certain and declarative remarks like “Obama said exactly what he needed to say, and this is going to turn out to be a turning point in this campaign for the Democrats,” and then they praise the whole thing from every angle.  If you watch these shows, you’d think Obama positioned himself as a politician with supernatural talents who has triumphantly opened a productive dialogue on one of America’s seediest and buried-but-just-under-the-surface issues.  Surely such an acheivement leaves the petty, sniping Hillary Clinton behind as a relic, just another pol trying to win an office.  Obama is America, the Upgraded Version.

And then I poke my head out of the punditry cloud, and come across some data that raises an eyebrow:  a few days before the speech, Obama had a statistically significant lead over Clinton nationally among Democrats.  And then, a couple days after Obama’s Best Speech Ever, Obama’s lead evaporates and Clinton takes the lead.  She jumped ahead in the crucial upcoming state of Pennsylvania.  Huh?  I thought Obama faced the toughest test of his campaign, stepped into the full glare of the gaffe-hungry media spotlight, and delivered like Eli Manning facing a furious New England rush…if he did so beautifully, why is he losing so soon afterward?

It’s been a real blogosphere education…I never, ever, really thought that the political opinion mill had much of an effect on public opinion – it’s the news media with their reporting on issues and scandals that moves the needle for the average voter.  But this Obama speech crystallized something for me.  The news channel pundits really are, like this post title suggests, movie critics – people well-versed in commenting on a highly subjective topic, and whose opinions are very likely to be outright ignored by the only people who matter – the ones who buy movie tickets.  And Pat Buchanan, Joe Scarborough, Rachel Maddow, Dee Dee Myers, Dana Milbank, Tom Brokaw and their like can talk about how well the respective candidates are doing and how effectively they are campaigning, but those opinions are quite likely to have all the influence of the Village Voice’s endorsement of a subtitled Hungarian romance movie…say what they want, no one’s seeing it.

Barack Obama has been the critics favorite for many months now, but as the road gets rocky, it looks like we’re going to find out if the man’s act has, as they say in the movie business, legs.  The media has certainly set their narrative, but they keep forgetting to include one thing – regular people are actually going to vote on this stuff.

4 Responses

  1. I’m not sure you’ve got the metrics quite right:

    The polls released after his speech that show declines were taken from polls done before he actually gave the speech. Similarly, the polls released just after the Wright scandal broke were taken before it broke. The question is: a week out from The Speech, will Obama’s numbers continues southward, stagnate, or go back up? Hard to say so far. What did YOU think of the speech? I thought it was excellent, riveting even. Whether or not you agree with the things he said, I think it can also be said that he’s right to emphasize that this whole issue is about much more than what some preacher said, or who Obama is, or the election–it cuts to the quick regarding race in America.

    I’m inclined to think this: people who watched or read the speech in its entirety may or may not have been swayed overall, but come out with a greater appreciation of Obama as a person of great intelligence and courage. Those who watched/read only the snippets: meh.

    You’re right about the chattering classes on the 24 hour news channels, though. What drives me batshit is the ADD on there. They’ve got constant news: why re-hash the exact same soundbites in each show? Why go to “expert” panels who are no more than an array of radio or other talk show hosts? Obama’s speech was on race: why not invite on people who have dedicated careers to its study? Why not put together a panel of people of different backgrounds to assess what they liked/disliked? Etc.? And why not go to such depth on all such issues?

    Answer: profits, laziness, stupidity, vapidity, adherence to advertisers. If only we had an actual, functioning Fourth Estate.

  2. […] All Things In Their Place: Obama’s Race Speech: Critically Acclaimed Flop, Or Ballot Box Office Gold? […]

  3. […] All Things In Their Place: Obama’s Race Speech: Critically Acclaimed Flop, Or Ballot Box Office Gold? […]

  4. It worked for us. It REALLY worked.

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