The Education of Barack Obama

Last week President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, which he has done five times before.  He spoke of a “network of death” and the “cancer of violent extremism” in the Middle East and said that “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force” while promising to lead a coalition to find a military solution to the challenge of ISIS.  The President also had sharp words for Russia, describing it as a “bully” and rejecting its “vision of the world in which might makes right.”

Observers have noted that the UN speech represents a dramatic change in the President’s tone and focus.  A National Journal article compares the six UN speeches and shows a President who has been transformed from a believer in “hope” and “change” and a world in which everyone shares a common interest in peace to a man who realizes that there are bad people in the world, that they want to do evil things, and that the only way they can be thwarted is by deeds, not words.  Optimism — about relations with Russia, about common values and shared dreams, about an inexorable arc of progress toward a rosy future — has been replaced by a recognition that the world right now may be teetering on the brink.

Only two years ago, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s realpolitick view of the world and America’s role — I thought an unseemly low point for the President in this regard came during a debate discussion about Russia in which he sarcastically stated that the 1980s had called and wanted its foreign policy back — but now the President has come around to largely adopt Romney’s position, and to use language that is reminiscent of President George W. Bush.  He probably won’t acknowledge that fact, but at least he now recognizes the threats we face and is resolved to do something about them.

Conservatives may criticize the President for being late to the game and for failing to more quickly recognize and respond to the threats posed by ISIS, Russia, and other bad actors on the world stage.  That’s fair, I suppose, but I think most of us learn from experience and modify our views of the world as we go through life.  President Obama also is learning the lessons taught by the School of Hard Knocks.  As we all know, such lessons can painful, but we can hope in this instance that they are lessons that are well-learned.

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President Obama Gets The Last Word — For Now

President Obama brought the Democratic National Convention to a close last night with a much-anticipated speech accepting his party’s nomination for re-election.  As always, the President gave a well-delivered address that addressed concepts that have become familiar from the 2008 campaign and his four years in office, and that sought to stir some of the same emotions that made his 2008 a crusade for so many people.  The burden for the President, I think, is that every speech he makes is compared to some of his prior addresses to rapturous audiences; for many it will be hard for him to approach, much less equal or exceed, his efforts four years ago.  He has set a high bar for himself.

The President’s speech reminded me of President Clinton’s speech the night before in that it was heavy on brief references to a host of issues and policy concerns.  The President mentioned a number of matters — job training, renewable energy, investment in education, climate change, women’s health, oil and gas exploration, and countless others — and then moved on quickly.  The speech included lots of round-number goals (“100,000 math and science teachers” or “a million new manufacturing jobs”) and future dates (“over the next decade”).  It was as if the President wanted to touch every conceivable base.  It certainly seemed that he did so, but talking, however briefly, about disparate issues makes it more difficult to knit together and present broad, unifying themes.

The President acknowledged the difficulties in achieving his promises from the 2008 campaign, without getting into specifics of discouraging data on  unemployment, foreclosures, and the federal deficit.  He spoke of “hope tested by political gridlock,” said he never said it would be easy, called our recent economic issues the “Great Recession,” and added that it is clear that it will take more than a few years to solve the problems.  He referred to his failings, and said he was moved by the hope that ordinary Americans gave to him, not the other way around.

The speech was more pointed in its criticism of his opponent than you typically hear in addresses by incumbents, who often attempt to appear above the fray and largely ignore their adversaries.  He said Republicans don’t want Americans to know their plans, which consist only of lower taxes and reduced regulations as the remedy for every malady.  He noted the lack of foreign policy experience of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, accused them of being in a “Cold War time warp,” and chided Romney for purportedly “insulting” Great Britain, “our closest ally,” during a recent visit to that country.  From such remarks, I think we are safe to say that we are in for a hard-fought, and probably personal, campaign.

The President sought to address the charge that he views more government as the solution to every problem.  Not all of our problems can be solved by government programs, he said — but our problems can be solved.  Thereafter, however, every proposal and solution he offered seemed to involve some form of government program, benefit, or subsidy.  He talked about “nation-building here at home” through construction of roads and bridges, which sounded like a pitch for another “stimulus” effort.  It’s tough for President Obama to argue that he isn’t for bigger government, because he obviously believes that, as he says,”government has a role.”  That belief makes it difficult to convince him that some government programs don’t work and that government spending often is wasteful.  Last night, at least, there was no talk of eliminating any specific programs or spending as part of a plan to balance our budget.

The overarching challenge for the President is that, as he observed at one point during his speech, “I am the President.”  Unlike 2008, he has a performance record to explain and defend, and it is hard to sound lofty themes when your opponents are constantly bringing the debate back down to earth with statistics about unemployment, home foreclosures, or declining median family incomes.

This year the Democrats had the luxury of following the Republicans, which gives President Obama the last word — for now — but Republicans will have their say soon enough.  For all of their apparent differences, President Obama and Mitt Romney do seem to agree on one thing:  to use President Obama’s formulation from last night, this election offers the “clearest choice in a generation” between candidates with “fundamentally different visions of the future.”  With the conventions done, we now move into the final phase of this ridiculously long campaign — a time of more rallies, more attack ads, and eventually debates that will let the competing candidates go toe-to-toe.