President Obama’s current travails have diverted attention from his and the Democratic Party’s substantive agendas and longer-term outlook. Democrats currently believe that demographics will doom the Republicans for years to come, and they rate their own chances high in the 2016 presidential elections and beyond. But beneath the surface, Democrats’ problems are at least as serious as Republicans’.
Presidential second terms are historically unproductive, but the botched rollout of Obamacare threatens to overshadow all else in the months ahead. And that’s only the latest stumble for the White House, after alleged NSA, IRS, and Justice Department abuses of power; the aftermath of Benghazi; and disputes over drone strikes. It’s hard to see anything else on the horizon but continuation until 2016 of the partisan polarization and gridlock that have reigned since Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Worse, the party could be facing setbacks comparable to that in next year’s midterm elections.
Long-delayed immigration-reform legislation may be enacted. But, otherwise, the period ahead is likely to be marked mainly by a rolling series of fractious federal-budget battles and transparently inadequate budget compromises.
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On the eve of Martin Luther King Day in January 2008, Senator Barack Obama took the lectern at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had served as a pastor nearly half a century earlier.
As one might expect, Obama echoed the words of the civil-rights icon who had helped pave the way for his own career.
“‘Unity is the great need of the hour,’ is what King said,’” noted Obama, who was in the middle of a primary showdown with Senator Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. But instead of serving up a plate full of feel-good gospel to the faithful before him, he challenged the audience later in his speech.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community,” Obama said. “We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.”
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The Atlantic was founded in 1857 as “a magazine of literature, art, and politics” devoted to the abolitionist cause. In the spirit of that tradition, African-American writers and intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King Jr. have appeared in its pages through the years, offering distinctive answers to the same question: How can America promise “liberty and equality for all” without ending racial discrimination?
On this day in 1963, more than 200,000 people marched in Washington, D.C. with that question in mind. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that march, we’re revisiting the articles written by four American icons who helped lead the country toward that historic moment.
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A half-century ago this week, on August 28, 1963, five days after my 17th birthday, my parents dropped me off at the South Norwalk station of what was then the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad to board a special train headed for Washington and history — not that we had a clue about the historic nature of that summer day.
That was the summer when the reality of race in America came home with a vengeance to any conscious white person with conscience who glanced at a newspaper or watched the 15-minute network nightly news shows. No longer could we ignore the ugly reality: that America south of northern Delaware had a system of apartheid every bit as real, oppressive, and legal as that in South Africa — and that things were only marginally better in the rest of the country. It was the summer of Birmingham, Bull Connor, teenagers rolled across Kelly Ingram Park and across sidewalks by jets of water from fire hoses, and the gnashing teeth of lunging police dogs. It was the summer that NAACP Mississippi Field Secretary Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway. It was the summer that would end with the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church and the murder of four black school girls preparing for the Sunday service. In the midst of all that, on August 28, came the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, best remembered for the speech that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
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New York City, 1962.
Click through a slide show of powerful photos by Bruce Davidson documenting the civil-rights movement: http://bit.ly/15Cacjc
Top: Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to supporters on the Mall in Washington, D.C. during the “March on Washington,” on August 28, 1963. King said the march was “the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of the United States.”
Center-left: Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, on June 11, 1963. (Credit: AP/Malcolm Browne)
Center-right: Firefighters turn their hoses full force on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 15, 1963. (Credit: AP/Bill Hudson)
Bottom: Three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. salutes his father’s casket in Washington on November 25, 1963. Widow Jacqueline Kennedy, center, and daughter Caroline Kennedy are accompanied by the late president’s brothers Senator Edward Kennedy, left, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (Credit: AP)
As natural as Obama’s statement may have sounded, his words were as carefully chosen as the interview. The testimonial to the gay men and women in his life; the discussion of values and the Golden Rule; the remarkable fact that America’s first black president, discussing an issue many see as a modern civil-rights struggle (with a black interviewer, no less), made no reference to civil rights — these were all talking points straight out of the new playbook of the gay-rights movement.
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Framing the gay marriage debate from both a legalistic and educational standpoint proved successful for Democrats in 2012, but what exactly prevents it from being framed as civil rights issue?
If there is one thing this election has proven, if there is one thing I have come to know, it is that Americans don’t like it when their right to vote is threatened. The very people whose votes the Republicans sought to suppress came out to vote. In places like Akron and Orlando and Denver and Milwaukee, they came. They waited in long lines and endured the indignities of poll workers. Yet they were not cowed. Today is their day. A day when they can look at one another and appreciate that they are truly a part of the history of civil rights in this country.
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Welcome, Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr., to what surely is a select group in history — election officials who get threatened with dismissal for trying to help voters vote. The two men work in Montgomery County, Ohio, and today they are fighting for their jobs. The men are Democrats and are involved in a political fight with the Ohio Secretary of State, a Republican named Jon Husted. On Friday, Husted suspended Lieberman and Ritchie for disregarding a recent early-voting directive from his statewide office.
What was the transgression that could cost the two men their positions? Lieberman and Ritchie had the temerity to propose that county election officials should continue to offer early-voting hours on weekends to registered Ohio voters so that more of those voters could more easily cast their votes.
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