Thursday, September 24, 2009

Grading Obama's U.N. Speech

IT'S A CLASSIC RHETORICAL move. Define who who you are by articulating who you are not. At his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, President Barack Obama made it pretty clear that he is not George W. Bush.

The President's talk, shorter than Moammar Khadaffy's and less racist than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's, not only addressed the responsibility of steering the ship of state through the gnarly waves of the present moment, it also charted the ideological course of the next three-plus years of his presidency. How did he do? If his speech were a freshman essay, what would his grade be?

In truth, his plan (or "pillars" as he calls them) looks beyond three years, in an attempt to ensure the future that "we want for our children:"

non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people

I know what you're thinking--the president plagiarized George Bush! It sounds so much like the former Commander-In-Chief, Mr. Obama must have bought a speech online and passed it off as his own. Well, rest assured, I ran the text through, and it seems okay.


Who wants two Joe Biden's in the White House?

It's hard to imagine the former president believing such things, much less talking about them at the U.N. One has to wonder what the audience was thinking as they heard Mr. Obama speak. Are the two men (Obama and Bush) really as different as they appear? What must the American populace be like to have elected, back to back, such radically different souls?

I would say that the America who voted for George W. Bush is the America driven primarily by pessimism: fear of the other, concern over what some see as a deteriorating moral fabric, and secret man crushes on Karl Rove. Those who swept Mr. Obama into office are those Americans who, at least for the moment, are driven by optimism: the now over-used sense of "hope," the promise of change from the politics of pessimism, the secret comb-over envy of Joe Biden.

There is a fine line between naivete and optimism. How you see Obama will determine how you would grade his speech. If you are inclined to find him more rhetorically gifted than politically so, then you are likely to agree with The Weekly Standard's Steve Hayes who described the address as both "embarrassing" and "dangerous."

Juan Williams on the other hand, thought the speech was "terrific" because "President Obama laid out concrete steps that his administration has taken since coming into office to prove that they, in fact, want to work with the rest of the world."

I'm more inclined to agree with Williams here. Like any good essay, his speech had a thesis. Its tone was neither too lofty nor too chatty. He was funny but serious; humble but presidential. Most importantly, as Williams notes, he gave specific examples of how we wanted to construct his pillars. Or, in the parlance of writing pedagogy, he supported his thesis.

As for content, it evoked MLK (without the biblical overtones) and JFK (without the triumphalism). This spooked Charles Krauthammer, who waxed nostalgic about American rhetoric of superiority:

Obama's speech is alarming because it says the United States has no more moral right to act or to influence world history than Bangladesh or Sierra Leone.

It diminishes the United States deliberately and wants to say that we should be one nation among others, and not defend the alliance of democracies that we have in NATO, for example, or to say as every president has said before Obama that we stand for something good and unique in the world.

And so, there you have it. Arguably the dividing line among Americans in regard to Mr. Obama. Either America is morally superior and should determine policy in other countries, or . . . not.

There is a pretty well-documented track record throughout history when empires try to impose values on other cultures. So, even when both content and form are taken into account, Mr. Obama does well here. He gets an A-.


  1. While I found Obama's recent UN speech far less frustrating than his campaign-era investments in American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, I still feel that the speech might not deserve the A- you've awarded it. Obama's suggestion that the U.S. be understood as a co-savior of the world--rather than the savior of the world, as his predecessor fantasized--is not all that satisfying. To ridicule the world's communities for "stand[ing] by and wait[ing] for America to solve the word's problems alone" both ignores the work that many of these communities are doing and willfully elides the role that the U.S. has played and continues to play in causing the world's problems.

  2. I'm unhappy at the dig at our Vice President, Joe Biden. Yes, he plagiarized someone years ago and it cost him the election effort. However, did you know that shortly after that he was treated for a brain aneurism.

    He has come back from that and done excellent work as a Democratic senator. I supported his campaign for president.

    Given all the Republicans who are outright liars (Iowa Senator Grassley is a great example, talking about health care reform as "pulling the plug on Grandma"),I would think it wouldn't be hard to look outside the Democratic party for a target.