There was nothing to be gained politically by Obama making those remarks today. In fact there was, and is, a lot to be lost politically, and the hate machine is starting already (although I am watching Fox right now, and they're only revved up to about third gear; just wait til prime time!). Obama is being accused by the usual suspects of making this racial. Anyone who thinks it wasn't racial, as I wrote the other day, is in fantasy land. So I give him credit for doing something risky that isn't going to have any immediate payoff.
That said, I would say that while I think he struck generally the right tone, he could have said more to show that he saw the question--not about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, but the larger questions of race and crime and criminal justice--from its many different sides. The first half of his 20-or-so minute impromptu speech was him explaining to white America how black America felt about the verdict. That's fine. He's black, after all. When he noted that he had experienced himself some of those things white people do when a young black man comes near them, and when he said that 35 years ago that could have happened to him, it was pretty powerful and rang true.
He did make sure to acknowledge that young black men are more often perpetrators of crime, and he did say that that history of prejudice that informs how African Americans see things like the Zimmerman verdict don't excuse crime. But I have to say, as one who urged him to make remarks along these lines and who still thinks it was good of him to try to do this, I felt he didn't really talk with the same feeling to black people about how others (not racists, but just other Americans of all colors, because we come in many colors now) see these questions.
A case in point. Toward the end, on his last point about about we all need to do some soul-searching, he said we need to ask ourselves, "Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?" There, the sentiment would have been improved by him saying right after that: "And by the way, I mean that to apply to African Americans as much as to anyone else; no one is completely clean here." Just a little signal like that would have said to the broader audience that this wasn't intended as a lecture. A few more tough words for his side were, I think, in order, and loathe as I am to give some wingnut the license to write "even Tomasky says..," if I'm being honest, I have to say that I felt it came off a little bit lecture-y.
Substantively, I think he pretty well signaled that the Justice Department isn't going to take up this case. That's not up to him, of course, but if I'm Eric Holder listening to that portion of the speech, I think I get the signal that I should pursue other matters. The people on Fox weren't quite seeing it this way, persuaded that Obama was pushing for a federal case, but I think he was saying just the opposite.
His words about stand-your-ground laws--and remember, conservatives, he did say that he understood that SYG wasn't the issue in this particular case--are sure to spark efforts in the states that have those laws to rescind or soften them, although it's hard to imagine most of those going anywhere, given the states we're talking about.
I'm not, as you can see, in full swoon here. Obama was trying to speak from his heart, at least. But it was mildly disappointing to me. This could have been an absolutely transcendent moment. To do that, he would had to have found that moral intersection where black, white, and all other listeners lived, and made them (except the haters) feel: Yes, he is speaking for me, saying what's in my heart. He didn't locate that crossroads; instead he spoke more from one side of the street to the other. So the remarks came up short for me.
But by the same token it wasn't a lot of the things it's already being accused of. I certainly don't think he was being "divisive," and it's going to be clear tonight and over these next couple of days who the real racists (and/or cheap political opportunists) in this country are. At least Obama was trying to speak honestly about our country's most difficult subject. That's a lot more than we can say of the people who hate him.