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Obama in Cairo: A Commentary

June 4, 2009

One of the defining characteristics of President Obama’s public addresses has been a tendency to speak just as frankly about the faults of the audience to whom he is speaking as he does the importance of their ideals. During the election, he went into black churches and, while acknowledging the persistent historical racism faced by the black community in America, he criticized fathers who didn’t help raise their children. At Catholic Notre Dame, he stressed the importance of fealty to life but also the importance of choice. In Cairo today, he spoke of the need for Israel to stop building settlements, but also for the Muslim world to stop denying the Holocaust.

The Economist recognized this tendency in its coverage today of his Cairo speech:

The American president did not shy from chiding Muslims for the reticence of some to condemn violent extremism or a tendency to measure one’s own faith by rejection of another. He made a strong pitch for America’s own model of religious freedom, and called for understanding of the historical suffering of Jews, castigating the denial of the Nazi Holocaust as “baseless, ignorant and hateful”, in an indirect swipe at Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he also evoked Palestinian suffering, describing their situation as intolerable. He forthrightly repeated his demand for an end to Jewish colonisation of Palestinian territory.

This straddling of the ideological divide is not perceived as weak-willed or accommodating. Obama does not appear to make these concessions in an effort to be politically expedient but, rather, because he appears to willfully transcend the ideological boxes that typically limit true discourse between opposing sides in a debate. He argues for full legal rights and obligations for committed gay partnerships, but he opposes federally recognized gay marriage; he announced plans to close Guantanamo Bay but refused to release graphic photos (many reportedly including abuse of a sexual nature) of the torture that went on there. In another politician, these decisions might be criticized as weak half-measures, the actions of a leader who is not confident enough in his principles to fully live them. Obama, to the contrary, appears to act in complete accord with his principles of reasoned deliberation, almost as if he is the calmer presence in the room protecting us from our more heated visceral impulses: from our desire for the arrest and prosecution of those who tortured; from our vehement denunciation of the side with which we disagree in the abortion debate; and from relying on our understandable distaste for the heated anti-American rhetoric that comes from fundamentalist Islamic extremists to derail the possibility of new partnership with the Arab and Muslim world.

Obama’s domestic strategy of bi-partisanship and ideological flexibility has had strategic benefits (as I’ve written, his appointment of moderate Republicans to positions in his government has had the corollary effect of making the Republican party more conservative and more southern and, in all likelihood, less appealing to a more moderate national electorate.) but it has also enabled him to speak the sometimes unwelcome truth to groups, both at home and abroad, from which he has significant support, burnishing his reputation as a strong truth-teller and inoculating himself–and his policies–against criticism from his opponents. The result? The potential for new solutions to old problems that are only made possible when the stale discourse of the past has been replaced by a fresh dialogue.

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