Politics: Mr. Obama Goes to Philly

Last spring, Barack Obama holed up in a Center City hotel room and crafted the most important speech of his life. How that address came to be — and how people reacted to it — says as much about us as it does about him

“I went to sleep,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist. “I woke up at 2 a.m. Tuesday, and the finished speech was on my BlackBerry.”

OBAMA MADE THE most of his setting.

As a Constitutional lawyer, he knew well the significance of Philadelphia’s history, and — forced to react to Reverend Wright — chose not just to use the city as a backdrop for his speech, but to weave it into the fabric of the speech itself. The setting offered him a pretext to reach deep into the country’s history, to evoke the otherwise less reachable Founding Fathers, giving the speech the grandness it needed. He wouldn’t merely address his pastor’s racial comments; he would address race itself.

“He was dealing with a fundamental and long-standing issue that has gnawed at our country, one we’ve been wrestling with for the entire history of our country,” Axelrod says. “What better place to deal with it than right there at the Constitution Center?” Nothing could have suited Barack Obama better. Most politicians would run from any scandal involving race, but thanks to Philadelphia’s historical foundations, Obama could charge directly at the subject. As he had done in 2004, he would zig against the expected zag.

He certainly provided a contrast to his surroundings at the Constitution Center. In its main hall, campaign staffers struggled to accommodate the multitude of journalists who, sensing the importance of the moment, overwhelmed Obama’s staff with requests for credentials. In the audience, Congressman Patrick Murphy and Chaka Fattah and other politicians were seated. Backstage, where Obama waited to enter the auditorium, tense and excited politicos surrounded him­ — Harris and Dan Wofford, Michelle Obama — but Obama, by all accounts, remained placid. “He has this tremendous sense of calm about himself,” Shapiro says. Meanwhile, at Obama’s side, one local politician — overcome by tension, or the excitement — hyperventilated.

The auditorium stage bore eight American flags, and when Obama began his speech, he went straight to the historical gravity of the setting:

“‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,’” he began. “Two hundred and 21 years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots who had traveled across the ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787. The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery. … ”

And with that, Obama had laid a Philadelphian foundation from which he could address Reverend Wright not from a defensive crouch, but from the great height and distance of history.