Finding hope and reality in Obama's speech at Selma

GWEN IFILL: And joining me now for more analysis of the president's big Selma speech and everything else going on in politics this week are Nia-Malika Henderson of The Washington Post and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

The president gave quite a speech this weekend in Selma. And I wanted to walk us through a couple of parts which maybe people didn't notice, because they have political impact. First was — and we have seen this weekend another police-involved shooting in Madison, Wisconsin, and we saw last week the Department of Justice's Ferguson report. And the president spoke directly to why it is that racial — talking about, acknowledging racial tensions, he says, is not necessarily the same as playing the race card.

Let's listen.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don't need a Ferguson report to know that's not true. We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.

(APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won.

GWEN IFILL: So, what is he asking for? If he acknowledges the problem, then what for the president of the United States?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, The Washington Post: And I think that's the question. It's like the Martin Luther King question. Where do we go from here?

We have all of this evidence. I think what he's saying is that we have to acknowledge that racism is real. And there have been so many calls for this president. He's the first black president and in that way has faced a higher burden, I think, in terms of talking about racism, had so many calls for him to have a national conversation about race.

And I think, in some ways, this is probably the closest thing we will get to it. And this speech, I think in many ways it's a companion piece to his race speech from 2008. It's also in keeping with Eric Holder's speech when he talked about a nation of cowards. I think Obama is calling us to be not so cowardly and really face up to this nation's past and look at this Ferguson report as well, which is also part of the story of race.

GWEN IFILL: And the attorney — the outgoing attorney general spoke in Selma this weekend, too. Is this a burden or is it responsibility for the first black president?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: I think it's been both, right, throughout.

But I think the other important piece of all this was that it was ultimately was a very hopeful speech. This wasn't about, boy, things are so bad and we need to understand that racism still touches our society and inequality is still there, as much as it was about, look how great Americans, regular Americans have been at every step along the way.

Selma was one of those moments. But it's not over. We still have other ways to go. The inequality though is still really deeply embedded in our society. And it's race, but it's also very closely tied with education, access to education and income.

GWEN IFILL: I have to tell you, walking the streets of Selma, I was struck by the great divide between the hopefulness and the reality of what I actually saw there.

But let's talk about something the president put down. He had 100 members of Congress sitting in front of him at this speech at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and they have coming up before them an opportunity to review the Voting Rights Act, which is not by any means a slam dunk.

This is what the president had to say about that.

BARACK OBAMA: The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts.

(APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office.

GWEN IFILL: It should be noted that President George W. Bush was sitting right next to Michelle Obama, kind of — actually stood and applauded when the president made the appeal.

AMY WALTER: In the audience.

GWEN IFILL: But does that mean anything for the Republicans who were? And there were Republicans in that congressional delegation.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Yes, there were.

But I think this is a different Republican Party, and there have been some efforts. There was a bill in the House to restore some of the things that the Supreme Court stripped out. I think if you look at the composition of Congress now, not likely that it's going to happen, and partly — we talked about this before — partly, it's the gerrymandered way that the South looks like right now, right?

A lot of those Congress folks who are from the South are from districts that don't have a lot of black people in them. Part of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act was that black people are in certain districts. And they have sent their representatives, people like Terri Sewell, to the Congress, but other folks not necessarily in favor of.

GWEN IFILL: The should be noted that Terri Sewell is the first African-American woman ever elected from Alabama, so not huge leaps and bounds.

But is this partisan, really? What is going to trip this up, if it is tripped up? First of all, I'm curious about your assessment about that. Is it partisanship?

AMY WALTER: There's a piece of it that is partisanship.

And I think it's really driven by geography, which is the fact that we do now have segregation, self-segregation in some ways, too, that we have congressional districts that are becoming more homogeneous, not just on race, but on political ideology. We have more counties than ever that vote overwhelmingly for one party or the other, and so we put on that same — that same issue that comes into the Voting Rights Act.

The other thing is, the success of the Voting Rights Act, it is almost a victim of its own success, right? You see a lot of Republicans out there and a lot of other folks, quite frankly, say, well, gosh, why do we need a Voting Rights Act? We have an African-American president. You have more African-Americans turned out in 2012 than whites.

That's right.

So, maybe this is outdated. And the answer is, yes, the old one, if it's true that it was outdated, then we just need new protections. The problem is what Republicans come in and say is, Democrats are going to have to give something, too. And what they're going to have to give is on an issue like voter fraud and voter I.D.

GWEN IFILL: Amy, you mentioned earlier about the uplift in the president's speech.

But one of the things he did in that uplift was to make kind of a subtle response to some of the criticisms which have dogged him throughout his presidency, whether he was born here, whether he loves America we saw most recently.

This is what he said. You may have missed it.

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: We respect the past, but we don't pine for the past. We don't fear the future. We grab for it.

GWEN IFILL: Now, it should be said, that audience had been sitting there in the sunlight for a while and they were a little lethargic at times. But when he made that point about others who question Americanness, they knew who he was talking about.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Yes.

Others, maybe like Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, and lots of others who have cast him as somehow different, as the other. And that's what I thought was so remarkable about his speech and a lot of the conversation he's had about race and black people over these last couple of weeks, post-Ferguson, post-Trayvon.

He's really trying to broaden the idea of who represents Americanness, right? And even as he talked about Selma, he wants Selma not to be African-American history, but this American moment that served not just African-Americans, but helped this country live up to this original idea that the foundings laid out.

GWEN IFILL: And did he do it?

AMY WALTER: What was remarkable — after every speech the president gives, somebody gets on Twitter or writes a commentary saying, this was terrible, here are all the terrible reasons that he gave.

You saw conservatives line up and say, this was one of the best speeches I have seen the president give. I have not seen anyone come go out and come forward and say, boy, this president really made things worse or he was more divisive than ever.

GWEN IFILL: Yes. It seemed to be like a day people wanted to stand down.

AMY WALTER: Exactly.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Let's move on from that day to a day in which we're watching and waiting to see if Hillary Clinton stands up. And that is this question about her e-mails and her foundation.

They seem to now be coming together, which is the question of whether she kept a private e-mail account and then, separately, whether she, while she was secretary of state, perhaps fudged the rules in accepting funding for her foundation. And now these things are coming together and people are saying that she may talk about it finally this week.

Is this really damaging, these two things together conflated?

AMY WALTER: Here's the damaging thing.

First, in Washington, nature — well, in Washington and everywhere else, nature abhors a vacuum, right? And the vacuum was being filled. She wasn't talking about it. All of her opponents were. There was no response. So, that's part one.

The second part was, the Hillary Clinton of 2008 to right now was Hillary Clinton defined by the secretary of state position, that she was going to be sort of above politics. She wasn't just going to be defined by her time in the Senate or her time during the campaign. But now what we have is a Hillary Clinton that is being defined by politics while she was a secretary of state.

So if she's going to change that narrative, she has got to do it. Nobody else can do that for her.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: So, yes, she's got this — I guess a press conference on the next couple of days. Everyone is waiting to hear what she's said.

We have seen over these last couple of days at every speech, everyone's been waiting to see if she was finally going to address it. She hasn't. Bill Clinton has said a couple of things about it. And so really, I think the question…

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this. As Democrats begin to get nervous about these things, which they like to do, do they have a plan B?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Yes, Democrats are always nervous.

Martin O'Malley? No.

AMY WALTER: Really, there's no plan B. This is the whole problem for Democrats right now is they put all their eggs in the Hillary Clinton basket. And now they're looking at it and saying, well, what if that basket has a couple of holes in it?

And it's not even that this story alone is going to be the issue in the 2016 campaign. As I said, I think it's a bigger, broader question about whether Hillary Clinton, who has been part of Washington for 25 years, can present herself in 2016 as somebody — as an agent of change and something new.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Yes, as someone new.

GWEN IFILL: And whether there's always going to be another shoe to drop.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Exactly. That's the big question.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Nia-Malika Henderson, Amy Walter, waiting for those shoes to drop, thank you both very much.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Thank you.

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