Obama: My speech at March anniversary "won't be as good" as Dr. King's

WASHINGTON Even for a speaker of President Obama's oratorical skills, it would be a herculean task if not a Mission: Impossible to give a speech on a par with Martin Luther King's lofty and stirring "I Have a Dream" remarks of 50 years ago.

In fact, Mr. Obama admits as much in advance.

"It won't be as good as the speech 50 years ago," he said in an interview Tuesday with syndicated radio host Tom Joyner. "I just want to get that out there early," said the president of his expectations.

"When you are talking about Dr. King's speech at the March on Washington, you're talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history," he said.

In 1999, a collection of 140 scholars voted "I Have a Dream" as the best political speech of the 20th century.

Mr. Obama says the words spoken by King on this date half a century ago, and the way he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation, "I think is unmatched."

So when he stands in the same spot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as did King, Mr. Obama will seek to honor the King legacy and the message he delivered there.

Since taking office, Mr. Obama has spoken or written about King at least 60 times. He has mentioned him in speeches, eulogies, proclamations, commencements and various other remarks.

In 2011, on the day he dedicated the national monument to King, Mr. Obama referred to the "I Have a Dream" speech as a "shining moment." He hailed King's words as "glorious." Without them, said Mr. Obama, "we might not have had the courage to come as far as we have."

As for the distance the nation has come in 50 years, he thinks King "would be amazed in many ways about the progress that we've made."

Citing equal rights before the law, accessible courts, African-Americans on juries, as elected officials, as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, as part of a large and thriving Congressional Black Caucus, Mr. Obama thinks King "would say it was a glorious thing."

"Obviously, we've made enormous strides. I'm a testament to it," he said last week at Binghamton University in New York. A member of the faculty asked for his thoughts on the civil rights movement, 50 years after "I Have a Dream."

In the president's view, every generation "seems wiser in terms of wanting to treat people fairly and do the right thing and not discriminate."

But every time Mr. Obama mentions the progress inspired by and achieved because of King, he is quick to caution that there is much about The Dream that is yet to be fulfilled.

He said a "legacy of discrimination" still exists. He spoke of "institutional barriers" against minority groups, specifying African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

He also makes the point that the 1963 March was about jobs and justice, and in those sectors, inequality still needs to be addressed.

"When it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience," Mr. Obama said King would say "we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we've made.

He thinks King would feel "it's not enough just to have a black president; it's not enough just to have a black syndicated radio show host."

On the question of whether ordinary Americans can succeed day-to-day, "we have not made as much progress as we need to on that," he says.

It is "something that I spend all my time thinking about... how do we give opportunity to everybody so if they work hard they can make it in this country."

Those are thoughts Mr. Obama is expected to address again Wednesday, just as he did in answering the professor last week.

Even if discrimination were eliminated, the president said there would still be families who are poverty-stricken, neighborhoods that are run down, and schools that are underfunded.

"It's in all of our interests to make sure that we are putting in place smart policies to give those communities a lift and to create ladders so that young people in those communities can succeed."

Those words lead the president to his domestic agenda in this second term, including proposals to expand early childhood education and make college affordable.

It also draws him inexorably to the obstacles to his agenda he encounters in Congress.

"Unfortunately, we've got politics sometimes that divides instead of bringing people together," he said at Binghamton.

And he sees the divide as a constant struggle: "whether we're black or white or whatever color we are."

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.