Friday, July 25, 2008

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The Speech

At Dreaming Up Daily and elsewhere, I posted my first response to Obama's speech in Berlin (video and transcript here) and to the first round of media reaction, plus the sections of the speech I found most significant. Here are a few further reflections, partly inspired by the dearth of serious analysis, at least that I've heard.

This was a major speech by the candidate who could very well be the next U.S. President, and nobody seemed all that interested in what he said--when it was merely his coherent vision for U.S. foreign policy, especially as it relates to European allies, but well beyond that. But either the McCain complaining finally paid off, or the news media isn't interested in detailed reporting or analysis, or both.

First, the most obvious: Obama presented himself to Europe as the anti-Bush, and at some risk. He's going to be hammered by the rabid right simply for the line very early in the speech in which he says he is speaking as a U.S. citizen, and a citizen of the world.

He referred to--but did not dwell on--ending the war in Iraq. The crowd probably would have liked more of this, but Obama did not criticise a sitting President while overseas. (His later reference to American imperfections apparently sounded to rabid rightists like airing dirty laundry, but in context it was welcome humility.) But he struck all the issue notes Europeans needed to hear: nuclear proliferation, climate crisis, Darfur, torture, etc. Yet he also called for more NATO involvement in Afghanistan, not a popular position in Germany.

But most of all, he expressed his view that the U.S. must be ready to cooperate with its allies again, and to become a world citizen again. This is not only what Europeans wanted to hear, it is what Independents in America want to hear.
Another point on content: Obama presented a rational framework for attaining certain foreign policy goals. For example, he coupled military action in Afghanistan with humanitarian aid and development aid. He spoke out against Iran's nuclear ambitions, but he negated the current hypocrisy of U.S. policy by calling for an end to nuclear weapons everywhere, including the U.S.

Now a few thoughts on form. Obama used the Berlin airlift to create a structure in several ways. As a story about U.S. and German cooperation so soon after World War II, it was about strengthening that old alliance. But it was also about widening the cooperation it started, as exemplified by the European Union. Widening further, it is about creating more cooperation globally, to address global problems--and Obama showed that most problems we face are inevitably global:

"As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya."

As a story about the U.S. and West Berlin standing firm against the blockade by the Soviet Union, it was about allies standing together against other enemies, which also includes working together on tough problems like nuclear proliferation, unfair trade, the Climate Crisis and world poverty--which appear at least as hopeless.

As a story about cooperation that overcame barriers, it led naturally into the sub-theme of tearing down walls of prejudice. In terms of diplomacy, Obama's willingness to talk to everyone was demonstrated on this trip to be his ability to talk to everyone, and this speech reinforces that image.

As a story about the U.S. dropping food, not bombs, it was about the power of peaceful means. And as a story about how this U.S. effort won praise and trust from Europe and elsewhere in the world, it is a story about how the U.S. can regain its international reputation, which Obama showed was in other ways commensurate with characteristic American ideals.

In its rhetoric, it was of a piece with other Obama speeches. But it also recognized the two most famous American speeches in Berlin: given by John Kennedy and Reagan.

From JFK, Obama took the repeated refrains featuring the name of the city. JFK said several sentences in a row, "let them come to Berlin." Obama said "Look at Berlin" several times in a row. And instead of the famous Eich bein ein Berliner of JFK, Obama said simply,..."all free people - everywhere - became citizens of Berlin."

Reagan's only famous line was, "Tear down this wall!" Obama made tearing down walls a repeated refrain of his speech. Then there was this fascinating section:

"The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down."

So there is Reagan and tearing down walls, but also an echo of Lincoln and "A house divided against itself cannot stand." In fact, Obama uses "stand together," and "cannot stand" in interesting ways several times.

There's another hint of Lincoln--of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln said: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

Obama said: "They won hearts and minds; love and loyalty and trust - not just from the people in this city, but from all those who heard the story of what they did here. Now the world will watch and remember what we do here - what we do with this moment."

As for the themes and rhetoric familiar from Obama speeches, they gained new meanings in this particular context. He spoke about generational change and seizing opportunity (another JFK theme) with his signature refrain of "This is our moment. This is our time."

He used his biography to link hope in the context of individuals hoping for a better life, and the freedom to follow individual dreams and destinies, and the opportunity to make those dreams a reality, but carried these ideas through on a global rather than national scale. This is a point about America's role in the world--America as the symbol of hope, freedom and opportunity--but also shows that Obama's vision for America and his vision for the world are coherent, and both center on these key qualities necessary at the level of individuals. This is where issues connect with people (and here, there's a bit of a reference to FDR's Four Freedoms):

"What has always united us - what has always driven our people; what drew my father to America's shores - is a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people: that we can live free from fear and free from want; that we can speak our minds and assemble with whomever we choose and worship as we please. These are the aspirations that joined the fates of all nations in this city. These aspirations are bigger than anything that drives us apart."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


After Barack rocked Iraq, McCain must be weeping. So the rumor now that he'll soon be veeping--announcing his v.p. this week, to blunt further media dominance by Obama's overseas trip.

It's probably a bad idea, so I say, why be even more inconsistent, John? Go for it. He's got no good choices, but if McCain has a synapse still firing, he'll pick Mitt Romney, because if McCain doesn't win Michigan or PA, he doesn't have a prayer. Romney will piss off some rabid right Evangelicals because he's Mormon, but McCain's better alternative-- Tom Ridge, who might help him in PA--will REALLY piss off even more rabid rightists, because he's pro-choice.

He could then go for somebody neutral, like Pawlenty of Minnesota. I find a vp debate between Pawlenty and Evan Bayh hard to imagine--they are both so colorless that it will be like there's nobody on the stage. Now the gossip is about McCain visiting Gov. Jindal of Louisiana, the 37 year old very weird exorcist (literally, he performs exorcisms.) I can't wait to see that photo of them at the convention. That will be the biggest boost for Obama since Alan Keyes ran against him for the Senate in Illinois.

Barack's vp is another problem. I am appalled by the people the media are naming. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island is their latest favorite, and I'm sure he's a great guy, but he and Barack don't make a picture either. I admit the hot air networks have me doubting myself, but I don't see Barack making that kind of choice. The last time he addressed his criteria, he mentioned only somebody who shared his vision. So I see my usual suspects, especially Sebelius, and also, increasingly, I see John Edwards. Maybe Chris Dodd, and unless Joe Biden is playing possum, I still believe he's not interested. I don't see Bayh. I don't like the sound of Obama-Bayh. I can hear the GOPer chant already: "Obama-Bayh-bye."

But what do I know? Just riffing on veeping. Later, man.