Obama Urges Progress on King's "Unfinished Business"

Obama Urges Progress on King's "Unfinished Business"

By Alexis Simendinger - August 29, 2013

Citizenship, the shrinking middle class, economic justice, and the politics of cooperation.

In almost any major speech delivered by Barack Obama, those are the ideals that wander in and out of his texts. They were prominent themes in his inaugural address this past January. They’ve been center stage during his recent travels to try to energize his second-term agenda. And on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, before tens of thousands of modern-day marchers, the president sought to elaborate.

“We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life,” he said. “This remains our great unfinished business.”

Sitting through a drizzle that dried up as he stood to speak, Obama’s was the final voice in a parade of VIPs, electrifying singers, and ethnically diversified dance acts that gave the televised program the aura of a Democratic National Convention rather than a solemn tutorial on the legislative fruits of 1963’s historic March on Washington.

Martin Luther King Jr., whose memorial now towers above the National Mall, was Wednesday’s center of gravity. And the large crowd, shoe-horned around the Reflecting Pool and challenged by the organizers to survive entry through a single security chute, arrived by bus, bike and on foot from far-flung locales.

They brought folding chairs, unpacked lunches, pulled out rain gear, and practiced patience. Vendors hawked Trayvon Martin T-shirts and people held up signs depicting the slain teen’s hooded likeness, bearing warnings about stand-your-ground laws. National Park Service personnel smiled and dispensed directions. National Guardsmen in camouflage looked bored standing for hours in formations behind chain link fences that no one tried to jump.

Veterans of the 1963 march shared memories, photographed younger relatives and friends accompanying them in the rain, and recalled where they had been standing half a century ago when they heard a young civil rights activist named John Lewis, and King, who described his dream.

Obama was not the star of Wednesday’s show, but he was the exalted closer. The crowd, mostly African-Americans, did not swoon with emotion or weep as they did in 2008 while listening to man who would become America’s first black president. Elected twice, he’s now edging into old-hat-dom. At least one speaker hoped for America’s first female president, without mentioning Hillary Clinton, who was not at the event. The idea of breaking the gender barrier sparked loud cheers.

Huddled with ex-presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in front of Abraham Lincoln’s seated statue, Obama sounded like a man who hears a clock ticking, and knows that eight years guarantee a prominent place in the history books, but not a monolith on the Mall.

“He’s not Martin Luther King. He’s his own man,” Las Vegas real estate executive Richard Harris told RCP. With his photographer wife, Harri, whom he wanted a reporter to know he wed on King’s birthday, Harris said he had no trouble giving the president his space.

“He’s Barack Obama, so he needs to set his own agenda of what he sees as the future progression, for us as a people and for us as a nation,” he said. “He is going to have to set his own terms on that, for his own identity.”

The president cast himself as both the embodiment of America’s scarred evolution on race and a benefactor in the nation’s quest for justice. In the context of achievements since 1963, Obama spoke of “I” once, and was more comfortable with his often-used riff about “we the people.”

“That’s the debt that I and millions of Americans owe those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries; folks who could have run a company maybe if they had ever had a chance; those white students who put themselves in harm’s way, even though they didn't have to; those Japanese-Americans who recalled their own internment; those Jewish-Americans who had survived the Holocaust; people who could have given up and given in, but kept on keeping on,” he said.

Obama’s 29-minute oration picked up vigor at the end, when he returned to the notion that Americans, and especially young people, working together can deliver the change they seek.

“Change does not come from Washington, but to Washington,” the president said. “That change has always been built on our willingness, we the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship -- you are marching. And that’s the lesson of our past. That’s the promise of tomorrow.”

His description of the country’s overall condition -- dwelling on its vulnerable middle class and against a backdrop, left unmentioned, that Syria could be bombed by the United States within days -- drained Obama’s remarks of some of his usual optimism. And he clearly wanted his frustrations with Republicans in Congress to shine through.

More than halfway into his fifth year in office, the president -- who has of late been telling audiences the economy has turned a corner -- suggested that many Americans and especially minorities simply cannot climb the ladder of opportunity he envisions for the middle class.

“For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes,” he said. “Inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country, in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.”

What still gets in the way of a “fair shot,” Obama argued, is not apathy, lack of ability or even bigotry. America’s divided politics block the middle-class gate, he said.

“We can continue down our current path, in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations; where politics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie -- that’s one path,” the president said. “Or we can have the courage to change.”

On immigration reform, spending and taxes, the debt ceiling, and now Syria, the White House and congressional Republicans continue to lock horns. At the same time, world powers challenge the United States to lead just as often as they try to dismiss the administration’s influence.

So when Obama encouraged Americans -- mostly Democrats -- to continue their modern-day “marching,” he was really asking them to stick with him.

“We might not face the same dangers of 1963,” Obama said Wednesday, “but the fierce urgency of now remains.”

RCP congressional reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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