"Those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should," Obama said. "At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another, to have at once a serious and civil debate."
Obama contrasted the sense of duty and service summoned in response to disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti with the seeming inability of the nation's policymakers to answer "the slow-moving tragedies of children without food and men without shelter and families without health care."
The president criticized a political culture where disagreement on policy quickly morphs into questioning one another's motives. Obama, a Christian who was born in Hawaii, alluded to the undercurrent of allegations that he is actually a Muslim who was born outside the United States, saying, "I am the first to confess that I am not always right. . . . But surely, you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship,"
Speaking to an audience at the Hilton Washington hotel that included Vice President Biden, congressional leaders, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and an array of religious leaders and foreign dignitaries, Obama called on leaders to step outside their comfort zones to bridge divisions and unite around their common goals.
"Challenging each other's ideas can renew our democracy," Obama said. "But when we challenge each other's motives, it becomes harder to see what we hold in common."