Having to make a speech from the same spot as MLK Jr. is a daunting task.  Did Obama pull it off at the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington? Well, not quite. To be sure the speech had its moments and his focus on the real lesson of the civil rights movement: it was the accomplishment of ordinary people, is an important point.  Although the history books may list the leaders it was that not leaders but ordinary people who marched, demonstrated and worked who made the difference. Obama’s speech may have politely urged people to take action but when it came to rousing them it was something of a dud. More than any president before him Obama understands and can articulate the day to day concerns of the poor, the middle class, ethnic minorities, immigrants, and gay folks. He gets it that although some may have come in 1963 for an abstract concern like freedom or justice, most came for practical concerns.  Although undeniable progress has been made the list of things still needed would not be unfamiliar to those marchers fifty years ago. Legal segregation on racial lines has been ended for the most part, but the crowd 50 years later is still there asking for an economy that produces jobs, an end to police harassment, protection of black life under the law, combating attempts to deny voting rights, and better schools for their children.

The difference between Obama and King is that Obama is in a position to make policy changes that King could only ask others for. Yes this is a do nothing Congress that has irrationally refused to do anything that Obama wants, but Obama has wasted his efforts by trying to find compromises that they would accept. He has done less than his moral compass suggests he do, he has refrained from making statements about race until this last month and has not made those changes which he can without Congress.  His timidity and reasonableness has not brought about a pragmatic middle ground but only encouraged the lunatic Tea Partiers and conservatives to become more obstinate. At some point he has to realize that he will not get any help from this Congress and draw a line in the sand. He needs to make a strong statement of what he thinks should be done and do what he can.  It is better to go down fighting for what you believe in than to temper your actions in hopes of getting a compromise that will never come. If the American people finally get rid of this Congress in 2014 he may be able to act through legislation. If they are to become fed up with a Congress that doesn’t express their wishes on gun control, immigration, or so many other issues, then they have to be roused to express that at the polls. If people are not dissatisfied enough to throw the bums out, he needs to point out Congress’s failures and make them dissatisfied. This is what the speech failed to do.

I understand that this was not a policy speech so that there was no list of actions that he would take as president. Instead the focus was on what the audience both in Washington and beyond could and should do.  However he offered no specific actions they could take beyond a vague love each other and take an interest in each others’ lives.  He said, “when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from.” He also said in what was his best one-liner, that change “does not come from Washington, but to Washington; that change has always been built on our willingness, We The People, to take on the mantle of citizenship.” He did not elaborate on what taking “on the mantle of citizenship entails.” From a president whose election depended on grassroots organization that is a shocking omission. I understand that he did not want to turn a solemn occasion into a partisan campaign.  However he could have urged people to get out and work for their candidates whoever they might be knowing who they would be.

So we have a speech that is certainly not up to King’s high standard, but is not even up to Obama’s. His 2004 speech to the Democratic convention and his 2008 campaign speech on race are superior to this one. They made you want to get out of your seat and cheer. Even Bill Clinton’s speech was more rousing this day. Obama’s speech made me yawn even though its analysis was articulate and correct. Will anyone remember this speech or sound bites from it the next day let alone fifty years later? No. What we needed was a clarion call to arms.  What we got was a tepid mix of warmed over cliches. Obama’s speech was a missed opportunity.

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