In the duel of King Holiday weekend speeches, there is no question that Barack Obama won.
Indeed, on Sunday, he delivered the finest speech of a campaign that has heard the senator from Illinois deliver many fine speeches.
Obama did so by talking about deficits.
No, he did not return to the horrible, managerial language of the Clinton era, which tried to make the mere business of paying bills and balancing accounts into some sort of moral mission for the Democratic Party.
Nor did he simply deliver the kitchen-table economics address that he can and will master — with a few loans from John Edwards — if he is intent upon winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Rather, in his Sunday speech at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Barack Obama went to a higher ground — to that mountaintop that King occupied until his death on April 4, 1968, and that Bobby Kennedy stood for a brief and remarkable political moment that played out between April and June of that fateful year.
“Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country,” Obama told a audience that hung on the every word of the most emotionally-effective orator to seek the presidency since Kennedy.
“I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans,” explained Obama. “I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
Obama used this notion of a deeper and more fundamentally-damaging deficit to frame the message of a campaign that is only now beginning to distinguish itself not just from the failures of the Bush era, with its immoral embrace of the economics of inequality and imbalance, but of the Clinton era, with its adherence to a technocratic economic vision that while sounder than Bushism still treated moral concerns as footnotes to a broader project.