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Obama and King's 'Dream' speech

The power of great oratory to bring about change has shifted since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech. President Obama and recent US presidents have struggled to adjust to new demands for different styles of leadership.


President Obama speaks at the Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

AP Photo

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President Obama marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with one of his own, also delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The speech was not only a moment to take stock of racial and equality issues in America but a chance to take measure of how much great oratory can stir the conscience of millions.

King’s speech helped galvanize public support for civil rights legislation during a historic decade. The impact of television was just starting to peak. In contrast, Mr. Obama, while also a gifted speaker, has discovered – as many recent presidents have – that great speeches no longer easily result in action by Congress or gain support from Americans and world leaders. More people are unplugging themselves from TV. And the days of a “transformative presidency” may be over.

Times have changed since the 1960s as social and technological trends have altered notions of authority and the source of power. In fact, scholars of leadership say many of today’s best leaders are more effective by the quality of their listening than by the appeal of their rhetoric. With better education, ease of information, and an explosion of ideas, individuals feel more in control of what to think. One obvious example is how young workers show little loyalty to employers.


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