Obama urges humility amid Washington dysfunction

After a morning of scripture and piety, President Barack Obama on Thursday lamented that an annual National Prayer Breakfast had a "shelf life" measured in minutes in poisoned US politics.

Obama, headlining the annual multi-faith event, called on his fellow political leaders to show humility and to work together despite often fierce disagreements in the US capital's partisan swamp.

"This is now our fifth prayer breakfast... and it is always just a wonderful event, but I do worry sometimes that as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything we have been talking about... seems to be forgotten.

"You would like to think the shelf life wasn't so short. I go back to the Oval Office and I start watching the cable news networks...," said Obama, who appeared reflective and emotional during his speech at a Washington hotel.

Obama used the example of the humility shown by his political heroes ex-president Abraham Lincoln and civil rights icon Martin Luther King to call on lawmakers to bridge divides despite sharp disagreements.

"My hope is that humility, that carries over every day, every moment," Obama said.

"Let me suggest that those of us with the most power and influence need to be the most humble," said Obama, who often bemoans the spiteful US political discourse, even as his Republican foes brand him as a divisive figure.

The president spoke five days before he is due to deliver his State of the Union Address next week, that will contain policy prescriptions likely to be opposed in full by Republicans.

He is also locked in angry disagreement with Republicans who control the House of Representatives on spending and debt, and big clashes are looming on immigration reform, climate change and the deficit.