Obama Brings Back Hope and Change

President Barack Obama speaks during the Let Freedom Ring ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The bell at left rang at the 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. which was bombed 18 days after the March On Washington killing four young girls. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
National Journal
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Beth Reinhard
Aug. 28, 2013, 1:31 p.m.

If there was a time to bring back hope and change, this was it.

Pres­id­ent Barack Obama re­vived the themes of his ground­break­ing pres­id­en­tial cam­paign to mark the 50th an­niversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton Wed­nes­day in a bit­ter­sweet speech that ac­know­ledged his own place in his­tory amid the on­go­ing struggle for ra­cial equal­ity.

“Be­cause they marched, city coun­cils changed and state le­gis­latures changed, and Con­gress changed, and, yes, even­tu­ally the White House changed,” he said as ap­plause rose from the crowd spill­ing from the Lin­coln Me­mori­al and across the Mall.

While the speech by the first black pres­id­ent on the same spot where Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. fam­ously de­clared “I have a Dream” may have soun­ded like a re­hash to his crit­ics, it de­livered a mes­sage worth re­peat­ing on a day packed with sym­bol­ism. The speech did not lay out bold new themes but paid trib­ute to the civil rights move­ment while ur­ging the na­tion ““ es­pe­cially the young people ““ to keep push­ing for so­cial justice and eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity.

Obama’s speech was not overtly polit­ic­al, but there was an un­der­tone of pop­u­lism that re­called his line of at­tack against his 2012 Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent, Mitt Rom­ney after he scorned the gov­ern­ment-de­pend­ent “47 per­cent.” Obama re­peatedly noted that the civil rights move­ment was fueled by un­sung her­oes and blue-col­lar work­ers who made a liv­ing “wash­ing some­body else’s laun­dry or shin­ing some­body else’s shoes.” He also used the speech, as he has many times be­fore, to de­fend gov­ern­ment as a pos­it­ive force. That great di­vide between the two parties and how they view gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to widen as the pres­id­ent faces un­fin­ished battles over health care, im­mig­ra­tion re­form and the na­tion­al debt. As he did dur­ing the last cam­paign, he talked about a “choice,” in what could have been an im­pli­cit lec­ture to Re­pub­lic­ans con­tem­plat­ing yet an­oth­er show­down over the fed­er­al budget.

“The prom­ise of this na­tion will only be kept when we work to­geth­er,” he said, in one of many calls for unity. “We’ll have to re­ignite the em­bers of em­pathy and fel­low feel­ing, the co­ali­tion of con­science that found ex­pres­sion in this place 50 years ago.”

Obama has talked about race only se­lect­ively dur­ing his pres­id­ency, and he linked the goals of the civil rights move­ment to those pur­sued by wo­men, gays and people with dis­ab­il­it­ies, “the black cus­todi­an and the white steel­work­er, the im­mig­rant dish­wash­er and the Nat­ive Amer­ic­an vet­er­an.” He ad­ded, “To win that battle, to an­swer that call — this re­mains our great un­fin­ished busi­ness.” The em­brace of all those who struggle for equal­ity has be­come a trade­mark of this pres­id­ent.

In oth­er echoes of his 2008 cam­paign, Obama de­clared “the fierce ur­gency of now” and that “change does not come from Wash­ing­ton but to Wash­ing­ton.” The fa­mili­ar­ity of those words poin­ted to the fact that much like King’s dream of ra­cial uto­pia, Obama’s pres­id­ency has been marked by un­ful­filled prom­ises. The one-time sen­at­or who gained na­tion­al at­ten­tion dis­miss­ing the idea of red states and blue states on Wed­nes­day ad­dressed a na­tion more polit­ic­ally po­lar­ized than ever. Left un­said when he de­cried the cor­por­ate in­terests and lob­by­ists that rule Wash­ing­ton ““ an­oth­er com­mon cam­paign theme ““ was how the pay-to-play cul­ture con­tin­ues on his watch.

Know­ing that com­par­is­ons to 50 years ago will be made, Obama made a point to say, “We may nev­er du­plic­ate the swell­ing crowds and dazzling pro­ces­sions of that day so long ago, no one can match King’s bril­liance.”  His oth­er not­able ref­er­ence to King’s speech was when he called for “the right of every child, from the corners of Anacos­tia to the hills of Ap­palachia, to get an edu­ca­tion that stirs the mind and cap­tures the spir­it and pre­pares them for the world that awaits them.” But he only ap­proached the heights of King’s oratory near the end of his speech when he ref­er­enced the teach­er, the moth­er, the busi­ness­man, the fath­er, the vet­er­an, all “march­ing” to­ward a bet­ter day.

He left the crowd “fired up and ready to go” as he did dur­ing his first cam­paign. But half a cen­tury from now, it’s un­likely Obama’s speech will in­spire the way King’s speech does. Still, the over­all tone, in keep­ing with his de­sire to be per­ceived as a post-ra­cial, post-par­tis­an fig­ure, was de­term­inedly up­beat. “We will win these fights,” Obama in­sisted. “This coun­try has changed too much. People of good will, re­gard­less of party, are too plen­ti­ful for those with ill will to change his­tory’s cur­rents.”

Obama has fre­quently talked about his debt to the civil rights pi­on­eers, the “gi­ants whose shoulders we stand on.” They are the Moses gen­er­a­tion, the free­dom fight­ers who nev­er crossed over in­to the prom­ised land. Obama was two years old when King, then 34, de­livered his fam­ous speech. On Wed­nes­day, he called on the young­er gen­er­a­tion, the Joshua gen­er­a­tion, to pick up the torch. While Obama’s leg­acy re­mains un­writ­ten, it’s cer­tain that there will be fu­ture gen­er­a­tions stand­ing on his shoulders.

King said “Nine­teen sixty-three is not an end, but a be­gin­ning.” Obama’s un­fin­ished pres­id­ency in 2013 is an­oth­er link in the chain.

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