Opinion

The Great Debate

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.”

Fighting discrimination, as inequality grows

I grew up in the segregated South. I tell students the story of how, as a young boy, I went with my mother to Bloomberg’s Department Store on High Street in Portsmouth, Virginia. There was a stack of doilies on the ladies’ hat counter and I asked my mother what they were for. She explained that a black woman had to put a doily on her head before trying on a hat, because a white woman would not purchase a hat that had been on a black woman’s head.

My students think I am making all this up. They refuse to believe such things were true. It is too absurd, they insist.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” While the problem of discrimination has not been fully resolved, the country has made great progress since King spoke in 1963, which was before passage of the Civil Rights Act.

King’s legacy in the Age of Obama

When President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he will inevitably be compared to Martin Luther King Jr., whose oration that day framed the moral purpose of the civil rights movement.

But there are huge differences between the prophetic icon and the political prodigy that reveal the competing and, at times, conflicting demands of the vocations they embraced. If we fail to understand the difference between the two, we will never appreciate the arc of their social aspiration — or fairly measure King and Obama’s achievements.

Forty-five years after he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, King has become a global icon rivaled by few Americans. His outsized legend eclipsed the life he lived and overcame his enemies’ efforts to erase him from memory. King made a comeback in death from the bitter defeats near the end of his life, as the challenge of black militants made him seem increasingly out of touch. He has now leapfrogged virtually every other contender to be viewed as the greatest black American. Only Obama has come close to King’s popularity. But the preacher’s bloodstained sacrifice lifts him above the historic pull of presidential swagger.

NSA: Listening to everyone — except oversight

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

For 35 years the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been the judicial equivalent of a stellar black hole — everything goes in but nothing is allowed to escape.

Last week, however, for the first time since its creation, the Obama administration declassified and made public large portions of an 85-page top-secret ruling by the court that had been the subject of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The surveillance court was created in 1978, designed to act as a safeguard to protect the public from the National Security Agency’s ever-expanding eavesdropping capabilities, and its long history of widespread illegal spying. For three decades leading up to 1975, for example, the agency had been secretly reading, without a warrant, millions of telegrams to and from Americans as they passed over the wires of Western Union and other telegraph companies — the Internet of the day. That was supposed to come to a halt with the creation of the court.

The Case Against Natural Gas Exports

President Barack Obama has made middle-class jobs and natural gas two of his top second-term policy objectives. Both could be undermined if his Department of Energy (DOE) continues to approve gas industry applications for exporting American gas.

There is already a move in Congress to remove DOE’s authority, so approvals can move even faster, and the oil and gas industry has thrown all its lobbying muscle behind this effort to steamroll through the permission process.

Natural gas, the cleanest of the hydrocarbon-based fuels, has long been a primary choice for heating and power generation, as well as an essential raw material, or “feedstock,” for a vast range of chemistry-based products, including every kind of plastic, synthetic cloth and high-tech composite materials. When gas supplies came under pressure in the late 1990s, the chemical industry — and most other energy-dependent U.S. heavy manufacturers — were hard hit.

Rebuilding America’s high-wage economy

Good for President Barack Obama for emphasizing the need to restore America’s middle class. However, the actual proposals in his new summer offensive would not go very far toward that worthy goal.

America is moving, at an accelerating pace, toward an economy with tens of millions of poorly paid service jobs at one end, and a relatively small number of astronomically compensated financial jobs at the other. In between the fast food workers, who demonstrated this week for a living wage, and the hedge fund billionaires is a new creative class heavily based on the Internet. But the web entrepreneurs are too narrow a segment on which to rebuild a broad middle class.

For a quarter-century after World War Two, America was a far more equal society — with jobs that paid a “family wage” on a single paycheck. One question dividing economists now is whether the more equal, high-wage economy of the postwar era is irrevocably gone with the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Or whether a service economy can become an egalitarian one with a different set of policies.

Time for Senate compromise on judicial nominees

All eyes were on the Senate last week as Democrats and Republicans reached an agreement to move forward on confirming certain stalled executive branch nominees. This new spirit of compromise was heralded, but before we begin celebrating, it is worth noting that judges were not part of the deal.

Federal trial and appellate courts have alarmingly high vacancy rates, each hovering at 10 percent. In the D.C. Circuit, which is often the final word on everything from environmental regulations to consumer protection rules, three of 11 seats remain vacant. In the trial courts, which resolve the vast majority of federal cases, the average number of vacancies has stayed above 60 for five straight years — the only time that this has happened in more than two decades. Nationwide, there are currently 85 federal judgeships that need to be filled.

One key reason vacancy levels are so high is obstruction in the Senate. Senators have used the filibuster and other procedural mechanisms to slow down the confirmation of even noncontroversial nominees, who were usually confirmed, eventually, with overwhelming approval.

Clinton: The newest New Democrat

Democrats have a history of plucking presidential candidates out of obscurity: Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Republicans are supposed to go for whomever is next in line, particularly if they have run before: Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney.

It looks like just the opposite for 2016.

In the latest Iowa poll, Hillary Clinton completely dominates the Democratic field with 56 percent of the likely caucus vote (she came in third in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards). No other potential Democratic candidate gets more than single digit support. It’s Clinton’s turn.

And for the Republican nomination? The top choice of Iowa caucus-goers is “unsure” (36 percent), followed by Senator Marco Rubio (11 percent), Senator Rand Paul (10.5), Representative Paul Ryan (9), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (8.7), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (7.7) and 2012 Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum (6.7). Meaning, the Republican race is wide open. In 2016, Republicans may very well end up plucking a candidate out of obscurity. Hey, it’s worked for Democrats before.

Obama’s Plan: One Nation, Under Government

You’ve probably read that the series of speeches President Barack Obama started giving Wednesday are a “pivot” to the economy designed to rev things up. Well, they’re not. Obama’s speeches will be no less than the manifesto of a leftist president who plans to spend his remaining time in office installing as much of his big government “project” as possible by whatever means he can get away with.

If you got the wrong message, it’s because Washington reporters too often have a poor understanding of people who have a systematic philosophy and truly believe in what they are doing. Reporters,  focused on who is up this day and who’s down the next, have difficulty discerning the intent of someone like Obama — who is thinking much more long term.

Obama, with his speeches, is intent on laying out the rationale and building public support for “fundamentally transforming America” — as he promised five days before being elected in 2008.

Obama takes on the presumption of thuggery that permeates Martin case

Everyone looks to their president for protection against calamity, and black voters are no different. One little discussed fact of the Obama presidency is how it has been a singularly disastrous economic period for the first black president’s most loyal constituency: black people.

This has led to a running joke in families like mine where, nonetheless, black people cannot utter a word of criticism about him. They love him unconditionally.

On a recent visit to my older relatives in Detroit, I again asked whether there was anything more they thought President Barack Obama could do for blacks. These are wise retired folks in their 70s and 80s, fixed-income veterans of America’s race relations and unions. With their beloved city then teetering on bankruptcy, declared just days ago, none offered anything but new ways to praise him.

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