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Obama invokes health-care 'progress' in speech honoring MLK

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Members of the historic Vermont Avenue Baptist Church talk about what it means for the president to come to their congregation and speak at the same pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke several times.

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By Michael D. Shear and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 18, 2010

President Obama called on the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday in making what could be seen as a veiled plea for pragmatism on his health-care overhaul, saying that the civil rights leader never chose to forsake progress for a theoretical ideal that was out of reach at the time.

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Speaking at the morning worship service at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, a 144-year-old congregation near Logan Circle where King often preached, the president hinted at his anger with liberal allies.

"Sometimes I get a little frustrated when folks just don't want to see that even if we don't get everything, we're getting something," Obama said.

"King understood that the desegregation of the armed forces didn't end the civil rights movement, because black and white soldiers still couldn't sit together at the same lunch counter when they came home," he told the congregation. "But he still insisted on the rightness of desegregating the armed forces."

" 'Let's take a victory,' he said, 'and then keep on marching.' " "Forward steps, large and small, were recognized for what they were -- which was progress."

Obama's speech was intended to mark Monday's King holiday, and his administration has held back on formally acknowledging the president's first year in office. But Obama seemed eager in his remarks to knock down the overly grand expectations that he said some had at his inauguration.

"There were those who argued that, because I had spoke of a need for unity in this country, that our nation was somehow entering into a period of post-partisanship. That didn't work out so well," he said. "There was a hope shared by many that life would be better from the moment that I swore that oath."

And he acknowledged his own inner turmoil. "Folks ask me sometimes why I look so calm. . . . I have a confession to make here: There are times where I'm not so calm," Obama said, adding, "There are times when the words that are spoken about me hurt. . . . There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for naught, and change is so painfully slow in coming, and I have to confront my own doubts."

"But let me tell you -- during those times it's faith that keeps me calm . . . that gives me peace," the president added.

Obama returned to the theme of hope, saying that he expected the U.S. economy to recover and for progress on his agenda to be realized -- eventually.

"Let us hold fast to that faith, as Joshua held fast to the faith of his fathers, and together, we shall overcome the challenges of a new age," he said. "Together, we shall seize the promise of this moment. Together, we shall make a way through winter, and we're going to welcome the spring. Through God all things are possible."


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