Obama: The Roger Federer of Politics

07/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Scott Malcomson Former Sr. Advisor to the United Nations and International Crisis Group; author, 'Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce Are Fragmenting the World Wide Web.'

I'm not the first to equate Barack Obama with Roger Federer. (HuffPo colleague Brian Ross did so last December.) But the near-coincidence of the French Open and Obama's Cairo speech brought the comparison to mind again. Each man raises the level of play with a cool focus and economy of gesture that make most other players look crude. Obama and Federer are not power hitters; they use a variety of strokes, and think them through in advance.

Obama's Cairo speech was very Federer. (I'm trying to be the very last person to blog about President Obama's Cairo speech and think I might hit my goal.) I won't add further to the huzzahs of others, or echo the schoolmarmish injunctions to follow words with deeds (apologies in advance to all marms!). I only want to point out two things. The first is that his phrase about Muslim tolerance being demonstrated in "the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition" doesn't make sense, as Cordoba is in Andalusia, and by the time of the Inquisition Andalusia had long since gone Christian and expelled its Muslims and Jews. Not a big deal, but if this White House wants to continue its honor-thy-history strategy ("I'll see your ibn Khaldun and raise you two al Ghazalis, Mr. Fundamentalist!"), it needs to sweat the details. And this speech kept stressing the importance of historical fact.

My other point is less marmish. The Cairo speech was given on June 4, which was also the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen repression and of the first democratic elections in Communist Poland -- a beginning of the end of Communism. There was a time, not long ago, when these events were seen as part of a pattern suggesting the inevitability of democratic freedom. The Cold War had contained two teleologies, one of which, in 1989 and the period soon after, seemed to have won. This winning teleology was going to carry all the days afterward. The power of this idea was such that two more or less opposite events - in China and in Poland -- were often seen as part of a single forward movement of history, and have continued to be seen in this way for the past 20 years.

But neither the Tiananmen nor the Solidarity/election anniversary was mentioned in Obama's Cairo speech, even though they were on the very same day. And this is despite the fact that the democratization narrative those anniversaries evoke was a big part of Obama's message. For the Cairo speech was looked to for many reasons, but one of the main ones was to assess the Obama administration's commitment to promoting democracy, concerning which there was some question. Democracy promotion did not seem to be a priority. Obama is clearly no political romantic, and the uplift many people feel during his speeches is due to many things (not least biography). But it is not due to anticipation of the projection of American power. It is not due to sunny idealism about either politics or human nature. The former was something of a Clinton specialty, the latter more a Bush trope. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis... Is it possible to be both the Hegel and the Federer of politics? (If we were to follow Alexandre Kojeve's famous analysis that would make Obama Napoleon and his Cairo speech the Battle of Jena, which, frankly, is just too weird.)

What struck me, then, in the Cairo speech was the visible waning of the post-1989 narrative in its usual form. I suppose you might justify this on distancing-from-Bush grounds, since the aggressive pro-democracy, victory-of-1989 narrative is associated with him. But seriously, even after eight years of steady effort, did the Bush White House ever succeed in convincing very many people that it "saw farther," as Condi Rice (following Madeline Albright's lead) used to say? Bush never secured intellectual ownership of democracy promotion. And Team Obama is too smart, and too calculating, to give up a useful world-historical organizing principle just out of spite.

No, there's more to this than leaving Bush, or even neoconservatism, behind. These anniversaries were lying there, like political gold nuggets, waiting to be picked up; and the president did not pick them up. Admittedly, it may not be the time to antagonize China, which was pretty well freaked out about the Tiananmen anniversary. And Poland's own commemorations had devolved appallingly just prior to the Cairo speech. The Warsaw government had wanted to have an amazing Solidarity anniversary show in Gdansk. Alas, the shipyard unions there were pissed off (membership is about a tenth of what it was in 1989) and decided to hold the government's fiesta plan hostage. Meanwhile, Western Europe was showing less than total respect to the Eastern cousins in this anniversary year. (The Western states like to think the overthrow of Communism was somehow their doing, or at least a subsidiary act in their own drama. Thus they focus on the fall of the Berlin Wall.) So the whole Gdansk celebration plan collapsed.

But such mundane matters don't really explain the absence of these twin anniversaries from the Cairo speech. Elsewhere in the talk, Obama freely cited historical events -- the overthrow of Mossadegh, the Holocaust -- to advance his points. Indeed, the section on democracy was the only one free of this sort of historical scaffolding.

I'm only guessing, but I think there is something revealing here. My guess is that it is part of a semi-conscious erasure of the baby boomers, the generation of Obama's parents. When you look at the speech, you see its historical texture is mostly from the 1940s and '50s -- Obama's grandparents' generation -- and then the period of the Founding Fathers. The boomers are left out

Another possibility is that Obama simply doesn't think of European events as uniquely exemplary to the world as a whole. The healing of the West circa 1989 as first step in the world's healing would then not resonate with him.

A third possibility, related to the first two, is that Obama thinks of world history as discontinuous, with different historical narratives and regional destinies playing themselves out with a fairly high degree of autonomy. You could see this in how he talked about democracy ("America does not presume to know what is best for everyone") and that boomer fetish, globalization ("education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century"). This is uninspired, even bland, and in its modesty very post-boomer.

I am pretty confident that the post-boomer aspect of this administration is only beginning to come into focus.