Obama Berlin Speech: Reagan, Kennedy Comparisons; More Media Reactions

08/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Major news organizations are drawing comparisons between Barack Obama's speech in Berlin today and those of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. (They were helped along by Obama, whose remarks made several references to the words of the former presidents.) See video and photos from the speech here.

Saying he had come to Berlin "not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen -- a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world," presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama on Thursday night gave a soaring address that invoked echoes of the famous speeches in this city in which John F. Kennedy made common cause with Berliners against communist oppression in 1963 and Ronald Reagan called nearly 20 years ago to tear down the Berlin Wall.

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Asked whether he looked to Reagan's and Kennedy's Berlin speeches for inspiration, Obama said, "They were presidents. I am a citizen."

"But obviously, Berlin is representative of the extraordinary success of post-World War II effort to bring a continent together, to bring the West together -- East and West together," he said.

Nonetheless, as a youthful Democratic presidential hopeful who has promised change if elected and invoked comparisons with Kennedy, Obama's strategists hope a warm welcome from Germans will play well with voters.

More reactions to Obama's speech:

The UK Times noted that despite a buildup in the German press, which had already hailed Obama as a "political Messiah," the speech met expectations and succeeded in winning over attendees.

If the intended message was to show American voters that he could restore the tarnished image of the US abroad, then the rally - the only such event in his overseas tour - succeeded. Young girls dyed their hair red, white and blue, hand-scrawled placards declaring" President B.O" - most banners were removed by security guards - were held aloft and a few enthusiasts hung vertigously from the lampposts first erected by Nazi town planner Albert Speer.

The New York Times reports that at least one German official found public reaction to be too positive, given Obama's stance on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The response to Mr. Obama has been so warm that the coordinator for German-American relations in the foreign ministry here, Karsten D. Voigt, has tried to scale back expectations. He reminded Germans in interview after interview that Mr. Obama would have to support positions unpopular with the German public, like a stronger presence engaged in more fighting for the Bundeswehr, the German army, in Afghanistan.

First and foremost, Mr. Obama is popular because he is not Mr. Bush, who is wildly unpopular in Germany. Asked why they support Mr. Obama, his opposition to the Iraq War usually comes up first.

When reached for comment on the campaign trail, John McCain offered a somewhat rambling criticism of the speech:

"I'd love to give a speech in Germany ... a political speech or a speech that maybe the German people would be interested in, but I'd much prefer to do it as president of the United States rather than as a candidate ... for the office of presidency," McCain told reporters in Ohio.

McCain later said that he'd prefer to wait until he was elected president before speaking in another country, another odd criticism given that McCain spoke in Canada as recently as June. A spokesman for the McCain campaign later issued a more lucid criticism of the speech.

"While Barack Obama took a premature victory lap today in the heart of Berlin, proclaiming himself a 'citizen of the world,' John McCain continued to make his case to the American citizens who will decide this election," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said in a statement. "Barack Obama offered eloquent praise for this country, but the contrast is clear. John McCain has dedicated his life to serving, improving and protecting America. Barack Obama spent an afternoon talking about it."

However, as The New York Observer points out, Obama's trip has been a boon for him in the polls.

Still, perception of a trip has been the cause of some hand wringing on the web. Noam Scheiber at The New Rupublic's "The Stump" blog wondered how the speech will be received by swing voters.

I worry that the combination of the visual and some of the rhetoric--"Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen--a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world"--was a little too post-nationalist for the typical American swing-voter. I'm not sure you win the presidency without being seen as an unambiguous nationalist.

It wasn't the speech per se--which, as I say, was perfectly calibrated. It was the impression a voter might get from a stray line or two, against the backdrop of a hundred thousand adoring Germans, that makes me slightly queasy.

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic defended the speech, however, as have others.

What's so bad about Germans cheering an American, especially when the visuals were stunning. Hundreds of American flags, waving. 200,000 Berliners cheering an American presidential candidate.

A short speech, mostly, carrying the message that animates Obama's presidency:

The message of the speech was the common values that unite the citizens of the world. Obama's Berlin is a shining beacon of hope to the world, "where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is so challenge too great for a world that stands as one."

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza summarized the speech nicely.

It shouldn't be terribly surprising that Obama delivered a powerful speech on the world stage. After all, this is a guy whose candidacy was launched by his address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and propelled at crucial times (particularly his address on race after the Rev. Wright scandal) by his oratorical abilities. Obama's gift for public speaking, however, should not take away from the degree of difficulty of the speech he just delivered. While there appears to be some early criticism of Obama's decision to re-use his "this is our moment" line, the Illinois senator seemed to generally dodge the various problems that the speech posed without breaking a sweat (although he did awkwardly wipe his brow at one point.) The speech was neither a dry foreign policy address nor a campaign-centric talk -- either of which would have left Obama open to criticism. It was serious without being stultifyingly boring and global in view and without being overly solicitous of Europe.

Like many commentators, Talking Points Memo found that the speech had the right balance of patriotism and humility.

"I know my country has not perfected itself." The line, again, has a hint of a plea; he's asking Europe to forgive America the sins of the Bush years, while insisting that there's nothing incompatible whatsoever between patriotic love of America and caring what the rest of the world thinks of us.

And really, this brings us right back to his candidacy. In a sense, the message of his very presence in Berlin is this: If slavery is the ultimate national sin, then the fact that he's running for president, and very well may win, and is promising the rest of the world a better America if he does win -- well, then all of this would achieve some sort of movement in the direction of that perfection that stubbornly continues to elude us.