BACK ON MESSAGE IN BERLIN

By MICHAEL A. COHEN From Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.) Few places hold as much symbolic power fo...

By MICHAEL A. COHEN From Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.)

Few places hold as much symbolic power for presidential speechmaking as Berlin. So it’s little surprise that Barack Obama chose this city for his first major foray onto the global stage.

But if the West was united in 1963 when John F. Kennedy offered a lacerating indictment of communism and in 1987 when Ronald Reagan demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, today the transatlantic alliance is teetering, with genuine and serious divisions between Europe and the United States.

To bridge these fissures, Obama returned to the same language he has used to try to bridge the partisan divide in America. In fact, his first major overseas speech on Thursday was not dissimilar to the ones he delivered in high school gymnasiums and town hall meetings in the United States. As a reflection of his call for post-partisan politics, it was classic Barack Obama.

Back during the Democratic primaries, it was more than a message of change that spurred Obama’s political rise, it was his vision of a united America coming together to solve common challenges – a call reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s pledge nearly 30 years ago to “make America great again.”

Indeed, Obama’s message then was as much about bridging the divisions between blue-state and red-state America as it was about his policy prescriptions for providing universal health care or fixing a broken economy. In Berlin, he took this nonpartisan populist message and repackaged it for the rest of the world.

During the last few months,Obama has strayed somewhat from these themes, focusing more on the back and forth of daily politics and less on what George H. W. Bush deridingly called the “vision thing.” But it returned with a vengeance yesterday in the German capital.

When Obama won the Iowa caucus last January, he declared: “This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long; when we rallied people of all parties and ages to a common cause.”

He optimistically told voters:

“Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

His message in Germany was similar:

``We cannot afford to be divided. No one nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone. None of us can deny these threats, or escape responsibility in meeting them.

Especially when he concluded:

“People of Berlin – and people of the world – the scale of our challenge is great. The road ahead will be long. But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. With an eye toward the future, with resolve in our hearts, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.”

On a host of issues that have divided Europe and the United States – from the war on terror and Iran’s nuclear program to climate change and the challenges of free trade and globalization – Obama called on all sides to work together in common purpose:

“In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more _not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.”

Whether one shares Obama’s vision of cooperation is something else altogether. Some might argue that he has left himself open to the sort of attacks that he faced in the Democratic primary, namely that he is being naive and glossing over real ideological and policy-oriented differences. The divisions between the United States and its European allies are not simply a result of President Bush’s unilateralist ways, but reflect significant transatlantic divisions (ones that will not necessarily be glossed over should Obama win in November).

But after eight years of frayed relations between the United States and Europe, Obama seems to believe that a doctrine of post-partisan, solution-oriented politics at home and abroad is his best bet for both policy and political success.

An emerging Obama Doctrine is becoming clearer: It is the culture in Washington and the nation’s sharp partisan divides that must be healed before real legislative and policy change can occur. And Obama seems to believe that a similar approach can be used to bridge global divisions, achieve consensus on the nature of the challenges (which Obama tried to lay out in Berlin) and then seek solutions through partnership and compromise and not unilateralism. The current president ran on “being a uniter, not a divider,” but Obama seems intent to follow through on those words.

Yesterday’s speech was primarily intended for a European audience; the crowd of 200,000 in Berlin combined with the backdrop of a setting sun were fantastic props in his campaign for the White House.

But beyond the stagecraft, for Americans curious to know what type of campaign Obama will be running in the fall and what type of president he hopes to be, his remarks were a good preview of things to come. For better or worse, “change we can believe in” is back.

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July 25, 2008

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