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Obama's first MLK Day.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Last year, with President Obama's inauguration coming just one day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the parallels were irresistible. Political cartoons showed Obama taking the oath of office with King's ghostly hand on his shoulder.

The self-congratulatory sentiment - that by electing its first African-American president, the United States had fulfilled King's dream - was natural for the moment. A year later, as the nation marks its first King holiday with Obama in office, the reality is proving to be more complicated.

Obama is a charismatic leader. But as Americans have grown accustomed to him in the White House over the course of the past year, they've come to understand that he's not all that different from previous presidents.

Like his predecessors, he's hemmed in by the limitations on presidential power, an independent Congress, the inertia of government and the stubborn intractability of many problems, domestic and foreign. And like his predecessors, Obama faces an opposition that will spotlight his missteps, question his motives and take every opportunity to frustrate his plans.

Nor has the nation's first African- American president been able to lead the country into a dreamy state of post-racial harmony. Race has remained largely in the background of Obama's presidency, coming to the fore only by accident, as when the president became involved in the incident involving Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor arrested at his home in the course of what police believed was a break-in, or when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's retrograde remarks about Obama's skin tone and dialect were made public. The economic and social disparities that are the underlying causes of racial friction have not gone away.

None of this lessens the importance of Obama's milestone inauguration. When Obama was born, there were places in the country where his parents' marriage was illegal. Yet there he was, being sworn in as president, due in part to the moral courage of the man whose holiday was celebrated the day before. The country has come a long way - progress that plainly improves the lives of millions of Americans. But equally important, it strengthens the nation by making full use of everyone's talents.

Yet on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the giddy wonder of a year ago has faded. Obama does represent a transformation, but only in a limited way. Many supporters are disillusioned, as they were bound to be, to discover that Obama is unable to avoid compromises, just like any other politician. Many opponents are relieved to find that Obama is not an unstoppable force but is subject to the laws of gravity, just like any other politician.

Maybe King's holiday is a good day to absorb the lessons of Obama's first year. King's idea was not that only the most extraordinary Americans be given the opportunity to succeed, but that opportunity be open to everyone. Obama is an extraordinary person in many ways, but in the end he's just a man, an American who has much in common with 300 million others. When people begin to see that humanity in themselves, their neighbors and their leaders, King's vision will be realized.
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Title Annotation:Editorials and Letters; High hopes collide with realistic expectation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 18, 2010
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