MLK, Obama and Opportunity

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Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo courtesy of Heritage)

Fifty years ago in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream for America. It was a vision that gave “all of God’s children” an opportunity to flourish. Today, as we remember and honor King’s legacy, it’s quite evident that millions of Americans are struggling mightily to grasp the dream that King envisioned.
King’s famous speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, is worth reading in its entirety. Take note of this particular passage:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What would King say about that promissory note today? On a day when President Obama will outline his vision for the next four years, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is headed on a wrong track. Four years of big-government solutions have left the country pessimistic and discouraged.


The politics of division and class warfare, the centerpiece of Obama’s campaign rhetoric, are the antithesis of King’s dream.

Obama’s agenda — one that will likely include more reckless spending, bigger government and new challenges to our values and institutions — threatens the very nature of the American dream. Heritage’s president, Ed Feulner, wrote after November’s election, “We will see unfold over the next four years a crucial battle for the soul of America.”

Ironically, it was Obama, while running for president four years ago, who outlined an agenda that gave great hope to disaffected Americans. Instead, he squandered the opportunity.

Obama’s embrace of government at every level — from Head Start programs that actually set children back, a failing public education system that is creating a new type of segregation in schools, crippling regulations and higher taxes on small businesses — is doing great harm to America.

Today, Obama renews his ambitious agenda to remake America. Policy debates on gun rights, immigration, the national debt and countless other issues are already beginning to play out in Washington.

Conservatives must get to work to save America. It won’t be easy. Obama is transforming his powerful campaign apparatus into an aggressive lobbying machine. The President will never need to face voters again, creating the possibility of an even more radical agenda. If the past four years proved to be difficult, just wait for what’s ahead.

Along the way, conservatives will face tactical and strategic decisions that determine the future of the republic. There will be plenty of opportunities to critique Obama and oppose his agenda. Oversight by the U.S. House will be crucial to keep a check on the administration. Starting with the debt ceiling debate, lawmakers must stand firm for the principles that voters sent them to Washington to uphold.

It’s equally important for conservatives to articulate a positive vision for America. That was sorely lacking over the past year. Opposing Obama at every turn will only get conservatives so far. We must also explain how our policy solutions will lead to a better life for all Americans.

Steve Forbes, during a recent visit to Heritage, put it this way: “If you don’t have a positive alternative … you’re going to lose.”

That’s great advice. And the place to start is stressing a fundamental American value: The United States is, and has always been, the land of opportunity. Government doesn’t create opportunity. It might redistribute it or regulate it. But ultimately, it’s the hard work and determination of Americans who make this country great.

“The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness,” King said in a 1961 speech at Lincoln University. It’s time for conservatives to take that message to Americans from all walks of life.