NPR logo Can A New President Make A New World?

Can A New President Make A New World?

In his effort to reach out to the Muslim world from a lectern in Cairo, President Obama relied on the stark differences separating him from former president George W. Bush. This was at once the underlying strength of the speech, and its ultimate weakness.

Those who heard the speech, or who will hear of it, cannot fail to note the change of regime. For the Muslim world, and others disenchanted with the previous American president, nothing could be more welcome.

But from this point forward, the great virtue of being someone other than George W. Bush will pay diminishing returns. And while the speech foresaw a far better world for Muslims everywhere, it did not include a clear path or plan for getting there.

Unquestionably a visionary, the new American president is still working on being an architect and an engineer.

Perhaps it is too soon, even premature, for the new president to offer much in the way of concrete steps. He did grasp the nettle of Israel, at least briefly, acknowledging its right to exist alongside that of Palestine. He did scold the Israelis over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the expanding settlements in occupied territory, saying: "It is time for these settlements to stop."

But he did not go beyond what has been said on that subject before, notably in the early months of the administration of George W. Bush. On Nov. 16, 2001, Bush's secretary of state, Colin Powell, said this about the settlements in occupied territory:

"Israeli settlement activity has severely undermined Palestinian trust and hope. It pre-empts and prejudges the outcome of negotiations and, in doing so, cripples chances for real peace and security. The United States has long opposed settlement activity. ... Settlement activity must stop. For the sake of Palestinians and Israelis alike, the occupation must end."

In restraining himself on this as well as other subjects of extreme sensitivity, Obama was again using the combination of caution and candor we came to know over two years of presidential campaigning.

Once again, as in that campaign, the most resonant themes sounded by the new president were largely personal. Such as his name, his race and his personal story. The presence of Islam in his cultural DNA. All these elements are unique in the history of American presidents and can scarcely fail to impress.

Beyond that, this man, this new symbol of a different America, stands in contrast to his immediate predecessor in his fundamental worldview. Where the former president said terrorists simply "hate freedom," the new president finds the roots of resentment against the U.S. in centuries of Western colonialism.

And while he repeated the standard presidential vow to defend Americans against global threats, he described quite a different understanding of the threats. There was no reference, for example, to the word "evil." And when he spoke of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he called it "a war of choice," as opposed to a war of necessity.

These shifts on issues combine with his unique identity to inform the Obama appeal to Muslims, as well as to the international community in general. The combination has been enormously effective, and it may in time change the course of world events.

But the new president can rely on the newness and the contrast for only so long. Starting on a high note of expectation sets him up for dramatic downturns. As he acts to defend and represent American interests, as he inevitably must, he will seem less different. He will seem more American.

Touring the Great Pyramid at Giza after making his speech, the president was shown a hieroglyphic he found familiar. "It looks like me," he said, pointing to the prominent ears. His guide said the figure represented a man who had been a judge, a scholar and a priest. The president smiled.

A priest, a judge and a scholar. In his speech, Obama seemed to be reaching for a bit of all three. But as his presidency continues, he realizes he must expand his resume of careers. He will need to be a builder. Imagining the world as it could be is not enough.