More than any President in modern history, Barack Obama won the White House on the combination of his writing and speech-delivery talents. His 2004 Democratic Convention address propelled him into the national spotlight, laying the presidential predicate. When his 2008 campaign hit potentially fatal rough patches, Obama brilliantly used speeches not only to deal with the crisis but also to propel the campaign forward to a new level.
His November 2007 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech in Iowa jump-started a floundering campaign. Time magazine observed that it was so effective that afterwards even John Edwards’ campaign manager, Joe Trippi, was chanting its catch phrase: “Fired up, ready to go!”
He did it again in March of 2008 when his campaign seemed about to implode over his long relationship with the minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. At Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he managed to defend Reverend Wright as a former Marine who had served his country and a service-oriented pastor who had served his community, while distancing himself from his hateful rhetoric. Then he shifted into a long discourse on race in America. This was a very difficult dive from a high board into a small pool and he pulled it off with remarkable grace and presence.
There were other big moments: election night in Grant Park, his remarks in Tucson for those murdered in the Congressman Gabby Giffords’ shooting, his Newtown memorial speech.
So perhaps it was inevitable that the power of his speeches would diminish, if only because his audience became more jaded and ever expectant of fresh magic. The first time a president speaks at Brandenburg Gate it is historic. The second is just a traffic jam.
But some presidents grow stronger rhetorically in the job as the gravitas of the office lends depth to their words. Few would argue that FDR’s and Lincoln’s best moments were campaign speeches. But in the sixth year, the presidency seems to be diminishing the power of Barack Obama’s words. That weakness was on full display in the speech he gave to European allies in Brussels on Wednesday.
In a moment that called out for a rallying cry of moral strength, the president fell back on his favorite rhetorical construct of weighing both sides of an argument. While this can lend a certain intellectual honesty to an argument, few have ever run to the cry of “on the other hand.”
Ronald Reagan challenged an evil empire to tear down a wall. His boldness and clarity of purpose electrified the world and brought some hope to the gray lives living in the drudgery of Eastern European oppression.
But this president seems to believe his role is to lower expectations and dim hopes. What are the Ukrainians—and the Russians and the world—to think when they hear an American president declare: “To be honest, if we define our—our interests narrowly, if we applied a coldhearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way. Our economy is not deeply integrated with Ukraine’s. Our people and our homeland face no direct threat from the invasion of Crimea. Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation.”
Good Lord. This is just awful stuff. The president of the United States is reeling off a depressing laundry list of reasons of why there is little hope for serious action. It is a catechism of defeat that ever Ukrainian knows by rote, one that was written by Vladimir Putin.
This depressing litany is intended to be a set-up for the high-minded reasons that America will never let Russia get away with this atrocity. But the president’s favorite “on the other hand” contrast that follows is meandering and confused. “But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard, not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.”
What? Africa? So we think they’re listening in the Congo? Somalia? Then, as if to make certain that no one was left with a glimmer of inspiration, the President announced, “None of us can know for certain what the coming days will bring in Ukraine.”
Oh boy. That’s reassuring. And it’s dead wrong. Vladimir Putin knows exactly what will happen because apparently what will happen is what he wants to happen. What President Obama is really saying is, “I don’t have a clue what Putin will do.”
It even gets worse. Because the whole world is so concerned that the United States might invade Ukraine, he offers this assurance: “Make no mistake, neither the United States nor Europe has any interest in controlling Ukraine.”
This is the kind of weak language that reeks of State Department memo writing and should never be uttered in public. When John Kennedy announced the blockade of Cuba, he urged Cubans to revolt against Castro: “Many times in the past, the Cuban people have risen to throw out tyrants who destroyed their liberty.” Kennedy didn’t feel obligated to offer reassures that the US wasn’t planning to “control” Cuba, even though, of course, that’s exactly what we desired.
Kennedy worked from the power of his convictions. President Obama’s Brussels speech is crafted on the conviction of apologies. Even the New York Times was offended that the president felt the bizarre need to justify the war in Iraq. “But Mr. Obama’s speech ran off the rails toward parody when he defended the war in Iraq,” the New York Times editorialized.
When the Berlin Wall went up, JFK protected the city with “Operation Stair Step,” the largest jet deployment in Air Guard history along with mobilization of 148,000 troops Guardsman and Reservists to active duty. He later famously told Berliners he was one of them. President Obama told Ukrainians “neither the United States nor Europe are perfect in adherence to our ideals.” Then reminded them, “We are human, after all, and we face difficult decisions about how to exercise our power.”
The decline of America as both an ideal and a world power is marked by such moments. JFK saw his destiny in challenging our limits at home and abroad. President Obama sees his in reminding us of our limits.
There is the one hand and the other hand. Then there is the Strong Hand and that is the hand Vladimir Putin is playing.
Correction: An earlier version of this article called Kennedy's action the largest airlift in history; he ordered the largest air mobilization in U.S. history at the time.