This is what a missed opportunity looks like: When President Obama finished his speech at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday afternoon at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, the crowd that lined the Reflecting Pool applauded briefly, then began streaming toward the exits that had been set up for crowd control, their voices at a murmur, their expressions nonchalant.
Once again, Obama gave a speech that hit many of the right themes but failed to light a fire because its chemistry was not up to the demands of the moment. He correctly acknowledged that we are far from the goals of economic justice and equality that King set forth. But the call to arms against the forces responsible for such realities as the gap between blacks and whites on employment and wealth needed a sharper edge to cut through Washington's coagulated politics.
To be fair, the president faced an unenviable task: Standing where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his epochal "I Have a Dream" speech, Obama had to find words that rose to the occasion without appearing to compete with its historic status. In a column republished on OurFuture.org, the Rev. Jesse Jackson suggested one way Obama could have faced this dilemma: As president, his primary job is to not issue the challenge as King did 50 years ago, but to respond to the challenge as President Johnson eventually did.
The president correctly put his finger on what is too often missed about the purpose of the 1963 march. "For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice – not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity."
He also correctly identified the realities of an America with shrinking economic opportunities for Americans regardless of race, as greater shares of the nation's wealth are concentrated at the top. When the dream of middle-class stability is moving further out of reach, the measure of America's progress cannot be, as Obama put it, "how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires" but "whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many." Making that happen, Obama said, "remains our great unfinished business."
Taking on that task means taking on what Obama called the "entrenched interests, those who benefit from an unjust status quo, [who] resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal" and who today are "marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools, that all these things violated sound economic principles."
And Obama was right when he said that defending the dream and completing the work that King laid out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial requires ordinary people to come together to "reignite ... the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago."
And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on Earth for every person. With that courage, we can stand together 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.
With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise.
Imagine, however, if Obama took a bolder step and said that because we must stand together for good jobs and good wages, we need to stand with fast-food workers in Chicago and New York and other cities around the country who are demanding a living wage.
Because we have to stand for the right of health care for every person, we have to call out and mobilize against governors and state legislatures whose acts against of resistance to the Affordable Care Act recall the lowest days of Jim Crow. So do the efforts to suppress voting rights in Republican-controlled states; imagine if the president used that podium to say that the resources of the United States government would be deployed against North Carolina and other states that take measures to restrict the right to vote. The setting would have been an appropriate moment for the president to ask Congress to replace the section of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court by the end of the year – just as even conservative House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., pledged to do days ago before a group of black Republicans.
Obama could have called for courage to stand with parents in Chicago and Philadelphia who are fighting the closings of their neighborhood schools and the siphoning of precious resources for not only charter and private schools but for tax giveaways for the wealthy. That courage might also mean that his own administration would feel more heat to reexamine its encouragement of high-stakes testing and "accountability" without resources for meeting the high standards it wants students and teachers to meet.
And the president could have specifically called for courage to not only help the needy but move out of the way the politicians and policies that have kept too many people in economic desperation.
When President Obama is at his best, he not only uses his rhetorical gifts to open up a lofty vision but also to inform us of the specific obstructions in the way and what we must employ to move those obstructions and rebuild the America we want.
But there is another fair critique here, and it is for those of us who heard the president. We can wish for a different speech. But, at the end of the day, it is not the quality of the president's rhetoric that matters, but what we do to mobilize people around what we know must be the center of our organizing in the coming months: Repeal the sequester. Make full employment our top economic objective. Rebuild and grow the economy from the middle. End the policies that concentrate wealth at the top and worsen income inequality.
Yes, it helps when the president makes the best use of his bully pulpit. The right speech, Dr. King showed us, can prick the conscience of a nation. But even the best speech is lost without a movement driving its message. So on Thursday morning fast-food workers are planning a nationwide strike to call attention to the need to raise the federal $7.25 minimum wage. Wednesday's ceremony on the Mall was labeled a "call to action." On Thursday, the action, and our opportunity to keep marching, continues.