Six years ago today: Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech

National Constitution Center

On March 18, 2008, Senator Barack Obama made his campaign-defining “A More Perfect Union” speech at the National Constitution Center. Here’s a look back at the moment and why it was historically important.

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Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton were the two major contenders for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. The two candidates were on the campaign trail for the important Pennsylvania primary in April.

Video surfaced earlier in the month of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor in Chicago, making racially inflammatory remarks.

Candidate Obama repudiated the remarks publicly. He wrote a blog post for The Huffington Post that voiced his opinions about the incident.

“I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it’s on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue,” he wrote.

His appearance at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia became a turning point of the campaign, and one of the most detailed statements about race made by a presidential candidate.

The speech itself was written by Obama, with help from speech writer Jon Favreau and input from from a key aide, David Axelrod.

Author Robert Draper said Obama dictated the main part of the speech to Favreau over the phone, Favreau wrote a draft, and then Obama rewrote the speech in the hours before the event.

The speech lasted for about 40 minutes and was broadcast live nationally.

The speech itself took on the issues of Wright, race, religion, and politics head-on.

“It has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn,” Obama said.

“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America–to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”

After reviewing the history of race relations in America, and the anger and frustration of people of all colors, Obama made his core argument.

“I have asserted a firm conviction–a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people–that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

Later in the speech, Obama returned to the constitutional theme of a more perfect union.

“This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation–the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.”

For the most part, the immediate reaction after the speech was that it successfully diffused the Wright situation politically and raised Obama’s profile as a national figure.

“Barack Obama made that remarkable speech about race and his own journey, and his relationship with Wright in Philadelphia. That held his campaign together; a very key moment,” said ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos.

“Senator Barack Obama, speaking across the street from where the Constitution was written, traced the country’s race problem back to not simply the country’s ‘original sin of slavery’ but the protections for it embedded in the Constitution,” said Janny Scott from The New York Times.

The speech also became an immediate sensation on YouTube and with younger voters.

In retrospect, the “More Perfect Union” speech has been dissected by academics for its structure and importance. In 2009, it was named by NBC News as the best political speech of the decade.

A month after the speech, Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary by a large margin to Hillary Clinton. However, Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination in June and defeated John McCain to become the 44th president.

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