In Oslo Speech, Obama Must Sidestep Land Mines The stakes are considered low for President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Thursday. But it's still a tricky proposition for a president who just committed some 30,000 U.S. troops to battle. He'll be feted abroad, even as Americans are squeezed economically at home.
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In Oslo Speech, Obama Must Sidestep Land Mines

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In Oslo Speech, Obama Must Sidestep Land Mines

In Oslo Speech, Obama Must Sidestep Land Mines

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Barack Obama's presidency has been marked by big international speeches. In Cairo, he addressed America's relationship with Muslims and Arabs. At the United Nations, he spoke of multilateral diplomacy, and in Prague, of nuclear nonproliferation. Well, tomorrow, the president will give another speech, this time in Oslo, Norway, when he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.

NPR's Mara Liasson looks ahead to that speech with the help of some presidential speechwriters, including one in the Obama White House.

MARA LIASSON: The president won the Nobel Prize in part because of his speeches. The Nobel Committee cited his work but also his words on climate change, nuclear weapons and diplomacy. Those speeches are crafted in a tiny, low-ceilinged room in the basement of the West Wing, directly underneath the Oval Office, by National Security aide Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes says it's easy to channel the thoughts of this president, an accomplished writer himself who developed his own voice in his memoir "Dreams from My Father."

Mr. BEN RHODES (Deputy National Security Advisor, White House): There are actually instances where we've lifted whole passages of that book or "Audacity of Hope" in speeches. There's a line towards the end of Cairo where he talks about the pulse of humanity that is literally just a beautiful line that I noticed at the end of "Dreams from My Father," and I just used it to end the Cairo speech.

President BARACK OBAMA: This truth transcends nations and peoples - a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization.

LIASSON: Rhodes says each big speech begins with the president himself laying out his thoughts in outline form. Then Rhodes starts writing and the president starts editing.

Mr. RHODES: The first draft of the Cairo speech that he got was so covered in ink marks that it was almost unrecognizable to anybody except me and him. Because he wrote in the margins, he wrote on the backs of pages, he'll write paragraphs that he wants inserted on additional pages that he'll staple to the text. But slowly, through each draft, there's less and less ink on the paper.

LIASSON: In all the international speeches, Rhodes says, there is a consistent world view.

Mr. RHODES: I think there is a theme and a thread that runs through all of these speeches. And you could boil it down to mutual interests and mutual respect.

Pres. OBAMA: In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.

LIASSON: Republicans bristle when Mr. Obama points out past U.S. transgressions in his effort to improve relations with the rest of the world.

Michael Gerson is a former speech writer for George W. Bush.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Former Presidential Speechwriter): The overall rhetorical approach that Obama takes in these speeches is to identify the problems and challenges of the world, the failures of pre-Obama America and then present himself as the transcendent healer to solve these problems. Now, he goes on to then criticize reflexive anti-Americanism. But the effect of all this is to elevate himself as an arbiter in these debates, rather than engaging in them on one side. And I think that that's very new in the history of presidential rhetoric.

LIASSON: That might have been true in the aspirational speeches, where the president calls for a bridge between Arab and Jew or the end to nuclear weapons. But last week in West Point, he gave a very different kind of speech committing 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan.

This speech, Gerson says, was not a typical Obama on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand kind of address.

Mr. GERSON: The ending of that speech really was a firm assertion of America's unique role in the world in a way that would've been familiar from Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman or John Kennedy, or other great Democratic orators.

LIASSON: Here's the passage from West Point where the president speaks of the special burden the U.S. has borne in global affairs.

Pres. OBAMA: We have not always been thanked for these efforts and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades.

LIASSON: Gerson and many others believe the Afghanistan speech and the Afghanistan policy marked a new phase in the Obama presidency.

Mr. GERSON: On Afghanistan, you know, it was not a split-the-difference decision. And that I think thus going into his Nobel Prize speech, you know, he has been forced to take one side of a very controversial issue that will help to dominate his presidency.

LIASSON: Ben Rhodes says the president will keep talking about American exceptionalism and leadership.

Mr. RHODES: We do have a special burden. And it's one that we don't take lightly. And I think the president will have the opportunity to talk about that in Oslo.

LIASSON: The Nobel speech tomorrow is full of land mines for Mr. Obama. He's a war president picking up a Peace Prize, just days after committing tens of thousands of troops to battle; and it's a prize two-thirds of Americans don't think he deserves, a view he himself agrees with. To make it even more awkward, he'll be lauded at a glittering white tie dinner by Europe's elite, including the king and queen of Norway, while back at home, Americans are losing their jobs and their homes.

White House aides say he'll acknowledge all that and try to avoid feeding his critics' charge that he is a global celebrity. And they say there's even something about this problematic award that could help him: For the first time before an international address, expectations are actually low.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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