Six Speeches, and the Evolution of a President

The message and the man have changed much since Obama’s first U.N. address.

US President Barack Obama speaks to the United Nations General Assembly September 21, 2011 at UN headquarters in New York. Obama warned Wednesday there was 'no short cut' to Middle East peace, as frantic diplomacy went on to forestall a Palestinian drive for UN statehood recognition. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sept. 24, 2014, 4:41 p.m.

There may be no bet­ter way to track the evol­u­tion of Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency than his an­nu­al ad­dress to the United Na­tions Gen­er­al As­sembly, and no bet­ter way to as­sess where his for­eign policy stands today than to watch Obama speak in New York Wed­nes­day morn­ing.

Both the man and the mes­sage have ma­tured since he first took to the U.N. po­di­um. In that first ad­dress, on Sept. 23, 2009, the still-new pres­id­ent de­scribed him­self as “humbled” to be there and his mes­sage was of “a dis­con­tent with a status quo” in the world. As he had done in his cam­paign do­mest­ic­ally, he urged oth­er world lead­ers that day to join him in a glob­al vis­ion he said was “rooted in hope, the hope that real change is pos­sible.” He spoke of end­ing wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan and talked of “ex­trem­ists” rather than “ter­ror­ists.” Rus­sia was a part­ner, Guantanamo Bay would soon be emp­tied, and ne­go­ti­at­ors would find a way to close the Is­raeli-Palestini­an di­vide. Over­hanging all else was the need to pull the world back from the eco­nom­ic abyss.

That was the start. And, today, 28,000 words and five U.N. ad­dresses later, “hope and change” has taken a step back; real­politik has stepped for­ward. There was no more talk of part­ner­ships with Rus­sia. In­stead, there was tough talk for the Krem­lin of the type not heard in more than a dec­ade. In a rhet­or­ic­al throw­back to the days of the Cold War, the pres­id­ent coldly called Rus­sia a “bully” for its ac­tions in Ukraine as tele­vi­sion cam­er­as zer­oed in on the stony-faced Rus­si­an del­eg­a­tion to see if they would storm out of the hall. The words could have been said by any Cold War pres­id­ent from Tru­man to Re­agan.

Obama used all six speeches to pledge the de­struc­tion of ter­ror­ists. But the tone had changed as well as the sense that events were mov­ing in the right dir­ec­tion with the ter­ror­ists on the run. “The tide of war is re­ced­ing,” he pro­claimed in 2011. Osama bin Laden, he ex­ul­ted, “will nev­er en­danger the peace of the world again.” Now, he said then, the world has “the chance to move de­cis­ively in the dir­ec­tion of peace.” Point­ing to the over­throw of tyr­ants in Egypt and Libya, he ad­ded, “Something’s hap­pen­ing in our world. The way things have been is not the way that they will be. The hu­mi­li­at­ing grip of cor­rup­tion and tyranny is be­ing pried open. Dic­tat­ors are on no­tice.” Talk­ing of Libya, he said, “From Tripoli to Mis­urata to Benghazi, today, Libya is free.”

A year later, on Sept. 25, 2012, the tone had changed con­sid­er­ably, the op­tim­ism dimmed. Obama began his ad­dress with a somber trib­ute to U.S. Am­bas­sad­or Chris Stevens who had been killed only 14 days earli­er by a mob in Benghazi. “This vi­ol­ence and in­tol­er­ance,” he de­clared, “has no place among our United Na­tions.” But he ended the ad­dress with hope and the boast that “the war in Ir­aq is over; Amer­ic­an troops have come home.”

That hope car­ried over in­to the 2013 ad­dress. A “dec­ade of war” had ended, he stated. “For the United States, these new cir­cum­stances have also meant shift­ing away from a per­petu­al war foot­ing.” At his most op­tim­ist­ic, the pres­id­ent de­clared that “the world is more stable than it was five years ago,” with al-Qaida “splintered in­to re­gion­al net­works and mi­li­tias, which doesn’t give them the ca­pa­city at this point to carry out at­tacks like 9/11.” Obama even warned his fel­low lead­ers that there was pres­sure on the United States to “dis­en­gage” from the Middle East, “cre­at­ing a va­cu­um of lead­er­ship that no oth­er na­tion is ready to fill.”

How much has changed in the 365 days since that speech was clear from the start Wed­nes­day, as a somber pres­id­ent warned that the world stands “at a cross­roads between war and peace, between dis­order and in­teg­ra­tion.” Where a year ago he saw a world “more stable,” this year he found “a per­vas­ive un­ease in our world.” Mo­ments later, he warned the world that it risks be­ing “pulled back by an un­der­tow of in­stabil­ity.”

This was a pres­id­ent more grimly aware of the dif­fi­culties of com­bat­ing ter­ror­ism than had been the new pres­id­ent who spoke in 2009. Yes, he had pledged him­self to the battle back then; but now he had the scars and per­spect­ive that comes only from time on the bat­tle­field. That showed up even rhet­or­ic­ally as he used the words “ter­ror­ist” or “ter­ror­ism” more than he had in all his pri­or speeches com­bined. Gone was the talk of mov­ing bey­ond war and clos­ing ter­ror­ist de­ten­tion fa­cil­it­ies in Cuba. In its place was talk of de­grad­ing and des­troy­ing the Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ists en­trenched in Ir­aq and Syr­ia. Most telling, there was the strongest single sen­tence in all the six speeches: “There can be no reas­on­ing — no ne­go­ti­ation — with this brand of evil. The only lan­guage un­der­stood by killers like this is the lan­guage of force. So the United States of Amer­ica will work with a broad co­ali­tion to dis­mantle this net­work of death.”

If his re­marks on Rus­sia could have been uttered by Pres­id­ent Harry Tru­man, this de­clar­a­tion could have been said by Pres­id­ent George W. Bush. That it was said by Pres­id­ent Barack Obama marks the con­tinu­ing evol­u­tion of a pres­id­ency.

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