Obama on King, but in a passive voice
It was a sermon — of sorts.
President Barack Obama’s address at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday only rarely echoed the cadence — the preacher’s rhythm — of the speech he was there to commemorate, and could not match its moral force. But this was a sermon all the same.
It was, to be precise, an exhortation against economic inequality — a fitting message on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and certainly in keeping with Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.
But the real measure of yesterday’s speech is not whether it was as powerful as King’s — will any speech ever be? — but whether it was the most effective speech Obama could have given on this stage, at this moment in time.
It was certainly eloquent — both in what he said and in the simple but remarkable fact of his presence there, a black man as president of the United States. But if the hallmark of a great speech, like King’s, is its union of man, message and moment, Obama got two of those things right yesterday. The man, oddly enough, is what was missing.
Wednesday’s homily was as emphatic as anything he has said on the evils of inequality since last year’s election. Stagecraft and split-screen shots aside, Obama’s speech owed less to “I Have a Dream” than to “freedom is not enough” — President Lyndon B. Johnson’s June 1965 commencement address at Howard University, in which he signaled a shift to “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.”
“We seek,” Johnson said that day, “not just freedom but opportunity.”
Even more than King’s cry for freedom and justice, LBJ’s call for jobs, education, better healthcare and stronger families constitutes what Obama called the “great unfinished business” of that era. (The debt to Johnson went unacknowledged — as most debts to Johnson do. Unlike President Bill Clinton, who directly mentioned LBJ in his speech, Obama used the passive voice to describe his achievements: “the civil rights bill was passed… the voting rights bill was signed.”)
The president’s speech was well-crafted, well-reasoned, impassioned in parts — yet there was the feeling, throughout, that he was holding something back. Chiefly, that something we saw in him from his first moments on the national stage: the unique insight and authority he brings to any discussion of race, identity and what W.E.B. DuBois called “the social equality of whites and blacks.”
When Obama permits himself to speak about these things — as he did in his 2004 debut at the Democratic National Convention, in his “race speech” of 2008, in his unscripted remarks about the Trayvon Martin shooting — he conveys an understanding that enriches our own. On each of those occasions it was said, rightly, that only Obama could have given that speech. But one of the disappointments of yesterday’s speech was that it could have been given — credibly, if less movingly — by any one of a number of Democrats. It was largely devoid not only of first-person pronouns, but first-person perspective.
Similarly, there was a passive, almost a resigned, quality to his portrayal of the path ahead. Obama said little to express or inspire confidence in his own leadership — in his ability to face down the “entrenched interests” he described, or their “army of lobbyists” and mercenaries in Congress, and to ensure that “our economic system provides a fair shot for the many.”
Obama’s indictment of the status quo was as severe as if he were a challenger campaigning against an incumbent president: “Our current path,” he said Wednesday, is one “in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectation.” So when he insists, despite all that, “We are masters of our fate,” what he appears to mean is, “You are masters of my fate.” In other words, America, unless you put on your boots and start marching, don’t expect much to come of my last years in office.
The dispiriting part is that it is hard to argue with that assessment. Nothing short of a general strike or a wholesale popular revolt is likely to shake this capital out of its complacency. Certainly, as the president knows, e-mail blasts by Organizing for Action are not going to do it. The Republican Party, for all its internal divisions, is united in its commitment to make “change” the great unfinished business of the Obama administration, and next year’s midterm elections are likely to pack Congress with an even greater number of intransigents.
It is little wonder the president is sounding weary. His is no longer the “triumphant march to the realization of the American dream,” as a determined King put it in a speech in Montgomery in 1965; it is, instead, a grim-faced standoff with a party perfectly content to default on that “promissory note” King and his marchers, half a century ago, came to Washington to cash.
PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, August 28, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed
PHOTO (Insert 1): President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act. Courtesy of LBJ Presidential Library
PHOTO (Insert 2): President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. March 18, 1966. LBJ Presidential Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto