Earlier today, US president Barack Obama delivered a commencement speech at the Air Force Academy. Or should I say campaign speech.
The remarks are interesting because they offer a window into what his campaign ‘pitch’ is going to be in the run-up to November. From the speech, he seems to have settled around a theme of a “new American century”, which Mitt Romney has mentioned repeatedly and originates from a Life magazine article in 1941 published by Henry Luce.
The theme is convenient for many reasons. First, it can be framed as a contrast to the ‘less glorious’ Bush days. Obama explicitly and colorfully did this in the speech, comparing the “dark cloud of war” to “the light of a new day on the horizon” (which he mentioned again at the end of the speech). He went into specifics too, from his administration’s drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan to its more active leadership in the Asia-Pacific. Because of this progress, he went on, “there’s a new feeling about America”.
I see it everywhere I go, from London and Prague, to Tokyo and Seoul, to Rio and Jakarta. There’s a new confidence in our leadership. And when people around the world are asked “Which country do you admire most?”…one nation comes out on top-the United States of America…Today, we can say with confidence and pride-the United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world. Because even as we’ve done the work of ending these wars, we’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership.
Second, it directly refutes suggestions that Obama is pessimistic about America’s role in the world and does not believe in American greatness. This strategy has two parts – first, refuting suggestions of American decline, and second, painting a sunny vision for Americans to rally around.
Busting the myth of America’s decline is something Obama has done before – most notably in his State of the Union address earlier this year. But the speech is much more specific on this point – going through various periods in American history where decline was prophesized (Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam and the energy crisis in the 1970s, and the rise of Japan and the Asian tigers in the 1980s).
After all this, you’d think folks would understand a basic truth-never bet against the United States of America.
But the real interesting development is Obama’s comments on his vision of America. He starts by claiming America is an exceptional country (something that he has gotten a lot of flak for not saying, rightly or not), and continues on to outline why he believes the 21st century will be another great American century.
One of the reasons is that the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs. This is one of the many examples of why America is exceptional. And it’s why I firmly believe that if we rise to this moment in history, if we meet our responsibilities, then-just like the 20th century-the 21st will be another great American Century. That’s the future I see; that’s the future you can build.
I won’t quote his entire vision of what an American Century constitutes, but the most attractive feature of this theme is that it turns the notion of a gloomy world with a wounded America on its head. A protracted economic slowdown gets turned into an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its famed resilience. Defense cuts are advertised as efforts to keep the military flexible and versatile. An uncertain order with a declining American capacity to lead becomes a clear-eyed strategy of distributing the “costs and responsibilities of leadership” more evenly. The closing paragraphs are devoted to America’s essence and spirit.
Finally, I see an American Century because of the character of our country-the spirit that has always made us exceptional. It’s that simple yet revolutionary idea-there at our Founding and in our hearts ever since-that we have it in our power to make the world anew; to make the future what we will. It’s that fundamental faith-that American optimism-which says no challenge is too great, no mission is too hard. It’s the spirit that guides your class-“never falter, never fail.”
That’s the essence of America, and there’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world. It’s what’s inspired the oppressed in every corner of the world to demand the same freedoms for themselves. It’s what’s inspired generations to come to our shores, renewing us with their energy and their hopes… That’s who we are. That’s the America we love. Always young. Always looking ahead, to that light of a new day on the horizon.
Four years ago, before Obama took office, I worried in my then weekly column that “the candidate of America’s hopeful future” would “morph into the president of its gloomy decline”. Americans generally like presidents who give them optimism and hope about the future, particularly in times of distress. Obama appears to not only have grasped this, but formulated a clear plan for how to project this image. Let’s see if it works.