It was a week in which American jets bombed Libya and nuclear engineers struggled with a crisis in Japan. The world was convulsed with questions about the role outsiders ought to play in a domestic rebellion in North Africa and what role nuclear power should play in a world requiring more energy even as it celebrates green initiatives. In this setting, the president of the United States gave two remarkable speeches — in Brazil, of all places.
Neither, it turned out, was about American power or the challenges posed by growing demands for energy and environmental sustainability. Barack Obama talked about colonialism, human freedom and the American Dream. They may have been the most revealing speeches the president has made since he took office.
It is true that Politico.com found Obama’s trip “short on progress” and The New York Times used his speeches to remark on the president’s apparent reluctance to speak on race. They missed the point. This trip, and these speeches, were extraordinary — and not for what the president ignored but for what he said.
In America’s center
In one sense, these speeches planted Barack Obama — pilloried from the right as a socialist, from the left as a reluctant progressive — firmly in the American center.
Yes, he deplored colonialism, but colonialism is so much a 19th- and 20th-century phenomenon that no conservative can reasonably argue that his was a Marxist interpretation. And, yes, he celebrated capitalism, but in the rhetoric of opportunity, insulating him from criticism from liberals who might have regretted his failure to focus on the excesses of the market, but could not have missed his emphasis on the aspirations of the poor and striving.
But even as he positioned himself as a centrist, he established himself as a president with a sensibility distinctly different from every one of his predecessors.
To see how he did it, let’s look at a few excerpts from those speeches, one at the CEO Business Summit in Brasilia, the other in Rio de Janeiro:
Like you, we threw off the yoke of colonialism and established our independence in the New World. We, too, are a vast nation of immigrants from different backgrounds and cultures who find strength in our diversity, strength and unity in our national pride. And as the two largest democracies and economies in the Western Hemisphere, we share a belief that all human beings deserve the chance to shape their own destiny and fulfill their God-given potential.
At first blush this paragraph, from the speech to the business leaders, looks like standard human rights rhetoric, which from the Declaration of Independence (1776, Philadelphia) to the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789, Paris) to the Fourteen Points (1918, Washington) to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948, United Nations) has changed little.
But in this statement, Obama mixed in a sprinkle of “nation of immigrants” (evocative of John F. Kennedy) and a dash of “diversity, strength and unity” (strains of Bill Clinton) and, by extending it beyond our own shores to the entire American hemisphere, made the thought his own.
And though Obama is not descended from slaves, the very presence of a black American talking about these issues to a nation that also experienced slavery made for a powerful statement.
In the United States, we believe in what’s known as the American Dream — the idea that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or how you start out, you can overcome the greatest obstacles and fulfill the greatest hopes. I’m a testament to that dream. I believe that that dream exists in this America, as well. I can see it in the entrepreneurial spirit of the men and women in this room.
This is the sort of speech American presidents give at Ellis Island commemorations or in town squares on July 4, and in that regard also looks like boilerplate Americana.
A new messenger
But this sort of rhetoric usually comes from white presidents who, with the exception of Kennedy, didn’t spring from families that endured immigrant hardship. Abraham Lincoln and Herbert Hoover, two presidents from hardscrabble backgrounds, were born of North American parents and, though they experienced economic privation, did not experience racial or ethnic discrimination.
Note, too, that this putative socialist once again made a bow to “the entrepreneurial spirit.” This is not standard Marxist rhetoric, nor is his reference, later in the speech, to the virtues of “a free people with open markets.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board would not disavow these statements.
When you think about it, the journeys of the United States of America and Brazil began in similar ways. Our lands are rich with God’s creation, home to ancient and indigenous peoples. From overseas, the Americas were discovered by men who sought a New World, and settled by pioneers who pushed westward, across vast frontiers. We became colonies claimed by distant crowns, but soon declared our independence. We then welcomed waves of immigrants to our shores, and eventually after a long struggle, we cleansed the stain of slavery from our land.
This paragraph, from the Rio speech, was carefully drawn. There is a bow to God and a bow of respect to “ancient and indigenous peoples,” which is a remarkable departure for an American president, most of whose predecessors did not bow on Wounded Knee. The two most remarkable words in this passage, however, are two of the most unremarkable: “From overseas.”
Read that sentence without those words and it sounds like so many paeans to the Pilgrim Fathers, the Puritans and the westering explorers and trappers: “The Americas were discovered by men who sought a New World, and settled by pioneers who pushed westward, across vast frontiers.”
But the president didn’t mean that at all. Add those critical two words, and Obama is acknowledging the presence of native people in the Americas before the white men arrived, changing completely the notion of the “discovery of America.”
Note, too, the phrase “stain of slavery,” accompanied later by a reference to two nations “greatly enriched by our African heritage.” No one could miss the meaning of those words.
In two speeches made as Libya and a nuclear plant burned, Obama subtly shifted the entire oeuvre of American presidential rhetoric. Maybe Obama’s trip to South America was more significant than it appeared. It wasn’t a diversion but a quiet way of altering the axis of the presidency.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette