It was not Kennedy and it certainly was not Reagan. Yet, in his speech in Berlin before a friendly but curious audience, Barack Obama achieved his principal purpose. The Democratic party’s presumptive nominee appeared informed, concerned, and presidential. Like two of his countrymen who preceded him to Germany (the presumptive nominee was not presumptuous enough to refer to them as “predecessors”), Obama talked about new partnerships, shared sacrifice, and common dangers.
Also like Kennedy and Reagan, Obama evoked humankind’s universal yearning for freedom. Obama acknowledged American failings. Unlike Bill Clinton, however, he did not apologize for them. Instead, he cast himself as part of a centuries’ long struggle to build a more perfect union. His refusal to pander to anti-American elements abroad may bring him increased respect should he become president.
At the same time, Obama’s failure to identify any clear course of action he will take as president may re-enforce the doubts that so many of his countrymen harbor about him. (Why did he again raise the ghost of “protection” on a continent that remains one of his country’s strongest trading partners?)
It is fine for politicians to hail the achievements of the Berlin Airlift 60 years after the fact. The questions on voters’ minds should be whether Barack Obama, once in office, would exercise the kind of courage necessary to order a mission as arduous as the one Sen. Obama accurately described. As president, would Obama behave more like Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter? Whatever else may be said of him or his campaign, this is not a question that people are asking John McCain. Answering it convincingly may prove Obama’s most difficult challenge in the more than four months remaining to this endless campaign.
– Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. (Basic Books.)