I rarely listen to political speeches, and I never presume that my reactions to political rhetoric have any relation to the speaker’s wider perception by the public. I read the text of Obama’s speech yesterday morning, and I watched it several hours later. From the media/blog reactions to the speech (less than 24 hours later), it doesn’t seem to have changed anyone’s mind, but that’s only one way to evaluate rhetoric. I doubt that polling people’s reactions would be any more illuminating.
The content of the speech wasn’t dramatically different than anything I’ve heard or read from many similarly lucid people over the last 20 years. Like many speeches by Obama and unlike those of his contemporaries, it treated a complex subject with the thoughtfulness and candor it deserves, keeping the audience engaged while indulging in very few soundbites or applause lines. He tried to start a discussion rather than bring it to a conclusion. Most of all, Obama expected his audience to rise to the level of the conversation instead of stooping to their baser emotions. Therein lies the risk, more than just grasping the "third rail" of race, for if the last 40 years have demonstrated anything it is that Americans hate being reminded to do their homework.