POLITICS JUNE 4, 2009
One year ago today, Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. In doing so, he defied Hillary Clinton’s criticism that his candidacy amounted to little more than shallow and flowery speeches. Change, Clinton argued, comes from hard work--not pretty words. Today, in the Grand Hall of Cairo University, Clinton listened from the front row as Obama gave his most elegant speech yet. Perhaps it dawned on Clinton, if it hadn’t already, that a great speech can do a lot of the hard work for you.
In some ways, Obama’s speech was anticlimactic. He said nothing terribly surprising, broke no new intellectual or policy ground. This was another one in a familiar series of Obama addresses seeking “common ground,” just as he did between pro-lifers and pro-choicers at Notre Dame last month, and just as he did in his March 2008 speech about the “common hopes” of whites and blacks in Philadelphia.
But in fact, much of Obama’s speech had a different sort of familiar ring. Most of his main arguments have been made before--not just by Obama himself, but by his predecessor. “Today I'd like to speak directly to the people across the broader Middle East,” George W. Bush said at the United Nations on September 16, 2006. Like Obama, Bush explained that the United States is not at war with Islam. Like Obama, Bush said that America respects the history and traditions of the Muslim world. Like Obama, Bush deplored the September 11 attacks and vowed to fight the tiny minority of Islamic extremists. Bush also assured his audience that “freedom, by its nature, cannot be imposed. It must be chosen;” Obama said that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Bush lamented the “daily humiliation of occupation” suffered by the Palestinians; Obama said the Palestinians “endure the daily humiliations… that come with occupation.” Bush assured Iran that he did not oppose their use of peaceful nuclear power; so did Obama.
Bush’s 2006 speech, of course, was immediately forgotten--a non-event with no impact on America’s image abroad. But Obama’s seems to offer the potential of making millions of Muslims reconsider their view of America. There is no novel way to restate the obvious reason for this: Obama is not Bush. He speaks without a foreign invasion on his resume, and with a reputation for honesty and decency. He writes and speaks on a higher intellectual and rhetorical level than Bush. (Today’s speech, of which he was said to be the primary author, may have been his best piece of writing yet.) And above all, he is a black man with Muslim heritage, as he explained in the speech’s emotional and symbolic highlight: “I'm a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims,” Obama said. “As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.”
In that passage lays a fine reminder of the value of Obama’s election. It was an unspoken subtext during those presidential primaries, when Obama was endlessly fighting rumors and smears about his lineage, and could barely articulate the rhetorical power of his personal narrative. (Try to envision him bragging about his Muslim ancestors in, say, Sioux Falls, Iowa, in late 2007.) It’s true that Obama didn’t set the grand hall afire. Whether for cultural reasons, or the awkwardness of instant translation, applause was sporadic and muted. (His call to halt Israeli settlements, for instance, went strangely unnoticed.) But to see him unfold his biography, to cut such an unfamiliar profile on the world stage, is to appreciate how much America will benefit from presenting this new face to the world.
“No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust,” Obama admitted today. And it remains to be seen how moved the Muslim world will be by his words. But even if Obama is saying many things that Bush has said before, he is decidedly not Bush. And for that reason, the world is listening. That’s no small achievement, something which even Hillary Clinton, from her front-row seat, must have been able to appreciate.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.