President Obama's speech to the United Nations this morning borrowed thematically from Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. It was an example of American idealism, and internationalism, at its soaring rhetorical best - a blending of principles and aspirations, hope and optimism.
Obama talked of the four pillars that he envisaged supporting international relations and global progress over the coming decades: nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts; the creation of global structures to promote peace and security multilaterally, rather than via go-it-alone unilateralism; a coordinated effort to protect the planet from catastrophic climate change; and a new economic order that works to eradicate "extreme poverty" around the globe.
He challenged and cajoled his audience, making a calculated mea culpa on behalf of his country for many of its recent acts on the international stage, and at the same time pointedly suggesting that the rest of the world needs to stop using America's power as an excuse for its own inaction, and that other countries ought to step up to the plate on big global challenges, from terrorism to climate change.
"The peoples of the world want change," Obama asserted. "They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history." He sought to harness that yearning for change in much the same way as he did in America during the 2008 election campaign. "The most powerful weapon in our arsenal is the hope of human beings," he declared.
The president didn't, however, just talk in abstract terms about the need for change. He also sketched out specific challenges, particularly when it came to the need to promote nuclear disarmament, to move forward on climate change policies; and to carve out a just, durable, peace in the Middle East, critiquing Israel publicly in a way U.S. presidents aren't wont to often do. America would be doing Israel no favors, he averred, if it didn't publicly declare that Israel had to respect the rights and legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians.
After years in which America's leadership viewed the U.N. as an afterthought, an annoying institution to which it reluctantly paid lip service, Obama's administration has made it clear that it takes the forum seriously. It has paid off large sums of the United States' outstanding debts to the UN, and today the president went out of his way to explain anew America's commitment to solving global problems collectively.
Barack Obama has always been at his best when the setting enables him to explain his vision for transformative change through the use of broad historical themes and holistic analyses. During the election campaign, his was the candidacy that clearly understood the historical stakes of the moment with the most clarity - the need, and opportunity, for a people-power movement within the United States; the urgency of repairing America's global reputation; the imperative to think outside the box in dealing with the cascading economic crisis; the immediacy of the climate change issue. His was also the candidacy that best understood that hope, if harnessed properly, can in and of itself be a potent political tool.
"He takes people who have stopped believing that more is possible and instills in them the belief that something more is possible; he takes people who disagree with one another, sometimes don't even like each other, and gets them to work together," Jerry Kellman, Obama's one-time mentor in the world of Chicago community organizing told me while I was researching my book Inside Obama's Brain.
Talk to political insiders, who have worked with many presidents over the decades, and they will tell you how Obama focuses on big-picture policy change rather than the game of politics to a degree unprecedented in recent decades. He doesn't get flustered by dips in opinion polls. He doesn't get side-tracked by petty political spats.
And yet, despite his political discipline, this summer has been a hard one for Obama. A populism-of-the-right has seized much of the political momentum, attacking Obama's healthcare reform proposals, and going after the administration over the ballooning national deficit. A second strand of populism, one that fuses a right-wing and left-wing rage, continues to percolate around the issue of the huge bail out of Wall Street and the vast bonuses that large banks and financial institutions insist on paying out to their executives.
Obama's responses to this rage have been somewhat tepid. The grand rhetoric has been largely absent, replaced, perhaps inevitably, by a somewhat technocratic vision of reform. After all, governance is at least as much about messy compromises and political grunt work as it is about great oratory. And sometimes, as one of Obama's colleagues in the Illinois state senate put it to me, half a hog is better than no hog at all.
My hunch is that that technocratic vision, that understanding of when to compromise and when to stand firm, will ultimately produce far-reaching policy changes. But, in the interim, at least some of the grand, even utopian, optimism surrounding Obama's presidency has dissipated.
Speeches like the one Barack Obama gave today at the United Nations, sweeping in their historical vision, grandiose in their moral aspirations, remind us of the extraordinary qualities of this presidency, and of its potential to change the course of America's vast ship of state. They remind us, in an era in which memory seems so fragile, and the 24-hour news cycle renders the momentary snapshot so much more potent than the long-term picture, of how stark the difference is between this administration and the one that preceded it.
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