SEVEN YEARS after his lyrical Philadelphia speech on race propelled him to the White House on a promise of change, President Obama returned to the city - and to that highly charged topic - to reveal something that's changed quite a lot since 2008:

His outlook on America's race problem.

The once-fresh optimism of a man who broke out in 2004 declaring that "[t]here's not a black America and white America" and who four years later spoke at the National Constitution Center of his hopes for a new generation free from racial politics, was tamped down for yesterday's speech to the NAACP 106th Annual Convention.

Instead, armed with hard numbers and a steely realism to match his graying hair, Obama made it clear that gross inequity in America's criminal-justice system will require not just soaring words but a host of major policy changes. He called for curbing stiff sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, allowing ex-convicts to vote and helping them get jobs.

The address before an enthusiastic gathering at the Pennsylvania Convention Center seemed a tacit acknowledgment by the nation's first black president that his election didn't change the huge gap in incarceration rates between minorities and whites, or the way that kids in urban neighborhoods such as West Philadelphia or Ferguson, Mo., are policed or perceived by outsiders.

Obama told the more than 3,000 attendees that although "Christian tradition . . . says none of us is without sin and all of us need redemption, justice and redemption go hand in hand."

It was perhaps fitting that the speech came on Bastille Day, the 226th anniversary of the French Revolution. At the end of one of the momentous days of his presidency - which started with a pre-dawn peace deal with Iran on nuclear weapons - Obama called for a revolution in how the U.S. deals with crime and punishment.

But while the Iran deal aimed to prevent a war from starting in the Middle East, the Philadelphia speech aimed at rolling back a conflict enmeshed in the nation for nearly four decades, the so-called "war on drugs."

Obama noted that long sentences for drug offenders have become a key driver as America's prison population skyrocketed from 500,000 in 1980 to roughly 2.2 million today - more inmates than 35 European nations combined.

"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it," he said to loud applause, stamping the presidential seal on an issue that was barely on the national radar screen in recent elections.

This was only the second time that Obama has addressed the nation's oldest and largest civil-rights group - the other was at its 100th anniversary confab in New York in 2009. It was another sign that as Obama rounds the final turn in his two-term presidency, freedom from future elections and a tide of events - including protests over police-involved killings from Ferguson to Baltimore, the Charleston, S.C., mass murder and subsequent Confederate-flag flap - has liberated him to speak with more force about race and injustice.

"In recent years, the eyes of many Americans have been opened" to ongoing racial disparities in how black and Latino citizens are policed, sentenced and treated in prison, he said. "Because of cameras, because of tragedy and partly because of the statistics, we can't close our eyes anymore."

Throwing the full force of his office behind the criminal-justice crusade, the president met behind closed doors with four ex-offenders in Philadelphia to hear how they'd turned their own lives around.

He started the week by commuting 46 sentences of nonviolent drug offenders - some who'd been behind bars since the crack epidemic of the 1980s - and will end it with a trip to a federal prison near Oklahoma City, a first for an American president.

"The people in our prisons have made some mistakes and some big mistakes," Obama told the NAACP, "but they are also Americans . . . " and the nation is entitled to develop better programs to ensure that they return to society as productive citizens.

Indeed, he spoke of prison problems that most likely have never before been addressed by a U.S. commander in chief in a public venue. He announced the formation of a task force to study abuses of solitary confinement and called for an end to a culture that makes jokes about prison rape.

"That's no joke," Obama said. "These things are unacceptable."

He made the most forceful call of his administration for restoring voting rights to ex-convicts which are still stripped in a number of states, mostly in the South, and urged "banning the box" for job applicants to check that they've had a felony conviction.

The president also praised the police on several occasions and won applause when he declared, "There are a lot of folks who belong in prison." At the same time, the speech lacked the overt calls for personal responsibility that have marked his few previous speeches on racial issues, including the 2008 Philadelphia talk.

In 2015, Obama's hard gaze has turned toward systemic abuses that have shown more permanence than the election of an African-American to the Oval Office.

"Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair - that's not a justice system," he said. "That's an injustice system."