Rhetorical Retreat

Obama Stump Speech Reflects More Modest Vision of America’s Global Ambitions

Gone from the president’s stump speech are calls for America to lead the world on global warming, or on anything else—a foreign-policy minimalism that acknowledges changes in global power.

05.07.12 8:45 AM ET

Listening to Barack Obama road-test his general-election stump speech this weekend in Virginia, I kept remembering the 2008 version and thinking that something was missing. Then it hit me: what’s missing this time is the rest of the world.

In Richmond this weekend, Obama described his 2008 campaign this way: “We came together to reclaim the basic bargain that built the largest middle class and the most prosperous nation on Earth. We came together because we believe that in America, your success shouldn’t be determined by the circumstances of your birth.”

Yes, that was part of it. But those lines—which could have been delivered word for word by Hillary Clinton—weren’t what made the Obama campaign distinct. What made it distinct, at least for progressives, was the promise that Obama would pursue those liberal dreams too risky for the focus-group-obsessed Clintons. At the heart of it was Obama’s willingness to oppose the Iraq War when many ambitious Democrats—fearing that voting their conscience would cripple their careers—supported it. But Iraq was only the beginning of Obama’s insistence that he would restore moral leadership in the world. He also spoke a lot about global warming. In the stump speech Obama outlined to great acclaim just before Iowa caucuses, he declared, “We are at a defining moment in our history. Our nation is at war. Our planet is in peril. Our health-care system is broken, our economy is out of balance, our education system fails too many of our children, and our retirement system is in tatters.”

Think about that. Global warming (“planet ... in peril”) was No. 2 in Obama’s litany, before health care, the economy, education, and Social Security.

The third stool in Obama’s case for restored American moral leadership was civil liberties. In his 2008 stump speech, he talked about meeting Americans “ashamed of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and warrantless wiretaps and ambiguity on torture.” Americans who “love their country and want its cherished values and ideals restored.” It was precisely Obama’s willingness to critique Guantánamo Bay, even in the face of the certain right-wing assault on his national-security “toughness,” that set him apart from Hillary Clinton and made many progressives swoon.

Flash-forward to this weekend in Virginia. No mention of global warming. No mention of Guantánamo Bay. No mention, in fact, of American global leadership at all. Here’s the entire foreign-policy section from Obama’s Richmond speech:

“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to this country. Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat. And by 2014, the war in Afghanistan will be over.

“America is safer and more respected because of the courage and selflessness of the United States armed forces, a lot of them from Virginia, a lot of folks right here in Virginia, putting on that uniform, serving on our behalf. And as long as I’m commander in chief, this country will care for our veterans and serve our veterans as well as they’ve served us—because nobody who serves, nobody who fights for this country, should have to fight for a job or a roof over their heads when they come back home.

“My opponent has different ideas. My opponent has a different view. He said it was —and I quote —‘tragic’ to end the war in Iraq. He said he won’t set a timeline for ending the war in Afghanistan. Well, I have, and I intend to keep to that timeline. After a decade of war that’s cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, the nation we need to build is right here, right here at home. So we’re going to use half of what we’re no longer spending on war to pay down the deficit, and we will use the other half to repair our roads and our bridges and our airports and our wireless networks.”

Politically, that’s a pretty effective sales pitch. But as opposed to 2008, when Obama was selling himself—at least to progressives—as the president who could make the world believe in America again, this year he is selling himself as the president who can help Americans forget about the world. Partly, that’s because global warming and Guantánamo Bay are political losers, just as the focus groups predicted they would be. But more broadly, it’s because Obama has a more modest view of America’s global ambitions. Barely anyone still believes that the U.S. can make China, India, and the other rising Third World titans bend to its will on climate change. Barely anyone cares as much as they did in 2008 about whether America is loved in the Middle East, in part because barely anyone anymore believes that America can remake the Middle East.

There’s little point in flagellating Obama for this. Yes, he could have been braver about closing Guantánamo and undoing the damage to civil liberties inflicted by George W. Bush. Yes, he should never have acquiesced, even partially, to the military’s demand for a surge in Afghanistan.

But overall, the foreign-policy minimalism reflected in his new stump speech reflects America’s narrowing ambitions in the world. America remains the world’s most powerful nation, with interests—and even values—that it aggressively pursues. But Obama’s rhetoric no longer assumes that it is within an American president’s power to save “a planet ... in peril.”

Global power is more diffuse that it was even four years ago, and Obama is acknowledging that, less through what he says than what he doesn’t. Welcome to the first presidential campaign of the post-American world.