President Obama’s words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were bound to be criticized as underwhelming, no matter what he said. The context, though, was nothing short of mind-blowing.

It was a classic no-win situation: On Wednesday, at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, Obama stood where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the greatest speeches in the nation’s history. No one could possibly measure up. It was wise not to try.

Instead of trying to match King’s poetic cadences and imagery, Obama paid homage to the “I Have a Dream” speech by echoing some of King’s rhetorical devices and using some of the same biblical references. The bulk of the speech, though, was vintage Obama, and anyone unfamiliar with his analysis of the social and economic challenges we face has not been paying attention.

But the context: As Obama spoke, everyone in the crowd knew that he must have been preoccupied with events halfway around the world. Faced with compelling evidence that the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had shelled a Damascus suburb with chemical weapons, killing hundreds, Obama had spent the past week laying the groundwork for a punitive military strike.

He had much to ponder. Would an attack have sufficient international support? Is it possible to design a bombing campaign that would punish Assad’s thuggish regime without tipping the civil war in favor of Islamist rebel forces? Does military action draw the United States into a conflict that Obama’s every instinct tells him we should avoid? Once we start firing missiles, how do we stop?

I couldn’t watch Obama’s speech without thinking of the aircraft carriers that were moving because he ordered them to, the diplomats he had mobilized around the globe to line up international support, the intelligence analysts he was grilling and re-grilling in an attempt to avoid the kind of mistake his predecessor made in Iraq.

And that is why Wednesday’s event, though designed to be similar in form, was nothing like the march in 1963. The featured speaker, in both cases, was an African-American known for his powerful eloquence. But King was an activist, preacher and prophet who appealed to the nation’s moral conscience. Obama is something quite different — the most powerful man in the world.

We have had nearly five years to get used to the fact that a black man is president of the United States. Some Americans, I suspect, will never accept this reality; most already have, and judge Obama the way King wanted us all to be judged — by the content of his character.

At issue now is how Obama reconciles his skepticism about the use of military force with his conviction about the use of chemical weapons. Obama has never claimed to be a pacifist. To the contrary, he vastly increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan before eventually beginning a withdrawal, and he has expanded the use of drone aircraft to assassinate members of terrorist groups.

But he inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the grinding conflict that George W. Bush called the “war on terror.” He was drawn into using military force in Libya by European powers, who nominally took the lead. Syria is Obama’s decision to make and to execute. Is a president who won election largely because of his opposition to an elective war about to start an elective war of his own?

You could argue that there’s no valid comparison. In Iraq, there were intelligence reports about alleged programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. In Syria, there are hundreds dead and thousands injured. In Iraq, the U.S. response was a massive ground invasion designed to topple an entrenched regime. In Syria, Obama has made clear that he is contemplating a punitive strike — not an intervention to produce regime change.

As I have written, I don’t believe the use of chemical weapons can go unpunished. But I acknowledge having no idea what might happen next. Obama, as he stood Wednesday in Lincoln’s shadow, had no way of knowing, either.

It is an African-American who bears this weight on his shoulders. That is the amazing context created by the many unheralded activists and agitators who have struggled for 50 years — and still struggle today — to make King’s glorious dream come true.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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