There is little doubt that the Wright controversy is the biggest crisis that the Obama campaign has faced so far. Some commentators have hastened to declare that it is, in fact, over for Obama. There is virtually no chance of him winning the general election anymore, they claim, even if he somehow manages to cling on to the nomination. Undoubtedly, the reaction of the blogosphere has been mostly negative, with some notable exceptions like Andrew Sullivan. Opinion polls have shown Obama’s support plummetting, especially among whites. Posters at message-boards who have already voted for him have declared their outrage at being fooled by the man’s charm and some of them have vowed to make amends, come November.
There is only one way to respond to a crisis like this — to take it head-on and respond. And Barack Obama is going to do just that, tomorrow, when he addresses the nation from Philadelphia in what might just go down in history as one of the defining speeches of our times. In my opinion, he should have done this long ago — after all, the Wright sermons are old news for anyone who follows the news — but better late than never.
I expect Obama to address the role of race in this campaign and in the broader arena of public service. I expect him to also talk about his own faith, elaborate on what drew him to Wright’s church, mention the words that have inspired and supported him, even as he reiterates his total rejection of Wright’s divisive messages. But above all, I hope that he will say something about the pitfalls of viewing things in black and white (and I am not talking of race here). Far too often we make the error of seeing things through an absolutist lense. People, and issues that matter, are generally too complex to be summarily dismissed with a value judgement. There are sometimes elements of good in the most inflammatory rhetoric. There is hope and beauty, truth and inspiration, to be taken from everyone, and it is possible to do so while simultaneously rejecting other viewpoints of the same person. Obama’s greatest quality is his inclusivity — he can see both sides of an argument, disagree without being disagreable and by extension, I think he can stay twenty years in a church and only take away certain positive aspects of its philosophy. Yes, the tapes and the Youtube clips being played over and over today do not speak highly of their author, but to get a balanced picture of Wright one should also go through his other sermons, like the one that inspired the title of Obama’s book, and I expect him to talk of that.
Will he be able to convince those who have turned against him? I don’t know. Changing people’s minds is an exceedingly difficult task, especially when the issue is complex and etched in shades of gray, as here. But if anyone can do it, it is Barack Obama. He is one the best orators of this age, and tomorrow will be his sternest test.