You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

Obama's Berlin Speech

Rhetorically, I thought it was one of the better speeches of the campaign--the exact right combination of love for America and plea for international cooperation. The closing riff was, not surprisingly, the high-point:

I know my country has not perfected itself.  At times, we’ve struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people.  We’ve made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions. 

But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived – at great cost and great sacrifice – to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world.  Our allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom – indeed, every language is spoken in our country; every culture has left its imprint on ours; every point of view is expressed in our public squares. 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. It is because of these aspirations that the airlift began. It is because of these aspirations that all free people – everywhere – became citizens of Berlin. It is in pursuit of these aspirations that a new generation – our generation – must make our mark on the world.  

The framing of America and Europe's shared mission in the war on terror was also extremely deft, as Frank Foer noted while we were watching:

This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it.  This threat is real and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it. If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York.  If we could win a battle of ideas against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope.

The idea of the war on terror as an ideological and existential struggle, a la the Cold War, is a common theme among conservatives (particularly neoconservatives). But somehow it seemed like a perfectly natural Obama-esque theme today, with his emphasis on our shared interest in winning. Suddenly the war on terror was the Berlin airlift and the Marshall Plan, not Star Wars and the Minuteman Missile.

My only concern was the atmospherics. Every pundit I've heard opine on this has held up the imagery as the most valuable take-away for Obama today. I'm not so sure. In addition to looking a little too much like a mega-campaign rally for some voters' taste (as vice-presidential wannabe John Thune said beforehand, the votes you need to win are in America, not Germany), I worry that the combination of the visual and some of the rhetoric--"Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen--a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world"--was a little too post-nationalist for the typical American swing-voter. I'm not sure you win the presidency without being seen as an unambiguous nationalist.

It wasn't the speech per se--which, as I say, was perfectly calibrated. It was the impression a voter might get from a stray line or two, against the backdrop of a hundred thousand adoring Germans, that makes me slightly queasy.

--Noam Scheiber