Assuming Barack Obama goes on to claim the Democratic nomination, there is little doubt that voters, particularly white voters in swing states, will by the end of the fall campaign know the name Jeremiah Wright like they once knew Willie Horton. The vaunted “Republican attack machine” will see to that—if Mr. Obama’s own foes within the Democratic Party don’t first do so.
But just because his enemies try to undermine Mr. Obama by linking him to his former minister’s inflammatory words doesn’t mean they will succeed. And Mr. Obama’s speech on race on Tuesday, carried live by all of the cable news channels and sure to dominate evening newscasts and morning newspapers, has made it far less likely that they will.
For one thing, he delivered an address that was specific in its condemnation of Mr. Wright’s well-publicized sermon and also sophisticated in its exploration of America’s racial journey and the contradictions it has fostered within people. Accordingly, Mr. Obama managed to insert some distance between himself and the caricature of Mr. Wright that has emerged while also avoiding any charges that he was simply engaged in damage control and pandering.
But the bigger and more basic reason the speech was a success is that Mr. Obama, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan before him, has something powerful and rather rare working in his favor: Most Americans instinctively like him and want to give him the benefit of the doubt. And Mr. Obama delivered for them on Tuesday.
The threat of the Wright controversy, of course, has been that it might strip Mr. Obama of his status as a racially transformative leader, a black man with the ability to win in non-black areas, something that general-election polls show him doing against John McCain. Past black presidential candidates, most notably Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, never demonstrated this potential, because—fair or not—most white voters believed (and still believe) that they were and are excessively focused on race and too quick to cry racism.
The Jeremiah Wright that the masses were introduced to through the YouTube clip that will forever define him seems, to the average white voter, like another polarizing black leader of the Jackson and Sharpton mold. Thus it was necessary for Mr. Obama to reassure, in unequivocal terms, the white voters who have been so receptive to him from the start of his campaign that they have been correct in not tuning him out the way they’ve tuned out past black candidates.
He certainly tried.
Mr. Obama, in his speech, said that the Wright the public had met harbored “views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation—that rightly offend white and black alike” and that could “widen the racial divide.” He also said that Mr. Wright had expressed “a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.”
More than that, he charged that Mr. Wright’s comments reflected an ignorance of or a refusal to accept America’s racial progress. “He spoke,” Obama said, “as if our society was static … as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”
Those who listen to or read about a speech like this will invariably hear and see what they want to. But that’s likely to be good news for Mr. Obama, because many Americans—and, certainly, most Democrats—want to like him and want to believe in him. Most of those Americans, upon being introduced to Mr. Wright through his YouTube clip, reacted with reflexive hostility. But Mr. Obama, with his speech, gave them reason to believe that he reacted the exact same way—that he is, therefore, exactly the kind of person they have long believed him to be.
Just hours before he gave his speech, a new Gallup poll was released that found that 62 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama, with only 33 percent viewing him unfavorably. (By comparison, the spread for Hillary Clinton was 53 to 44 percent.) Other data also confirms the unusual personal goodwill of most Americans toward Obama: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this week found that Mr. Obama scored significantly higher marks than Mrs. Clinton in areas like “honesty and straightforwardness” and on whether he has “high personal standards that set the proper moral tone for the country.”
Because of their experiences in most recent elections, there is an inherent pessimism among Democrats about the fall campaign. The “Republican Attack Machine,” they have come to believe, can and will carve up anyone their party puts up. Not surprisingly, the Clinton campaign has been exploiting this insecurity. Whether they say it or not, they clearly hope Democrats will treat the Wright episode as reason to fret over Mr. Obama’s general-election durability.
But what Democrats forget too often is how easy they’ve made the Republicans’ job in past elections. Neither John Kerry nor Al Gore nor Michael Dukakis nor Walter Mondale nor Jimmy Carter (the 1980 version) ever inspired any kind of personal affection from the electorate, the kind that would win them the benefit of the doubt when the mud started flying. But Mr. Obama does. And it’s why his response to the Wright matter, risky though it may have been by conventional standards, was a powerful one.