Teacher on a World Stage

Barack Obama with French President Nicolas Sarkozy last July.
Barack Obama with French President Nicolas Sarkozy last July. (By Remy De La Mauviniere -- Associated Press)
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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, January 25, 2009

The world's leadership club has welcomed President Barack Obama with a mixture of hope and wariness. It's been a while since members of this club have had to deal with an American leader who may be more popular with their publics than they are.

George W. Bush emphasized building tight personal relationships with a few key allies as the core of his foreign policy. He had little choice but to turn to Tony, Silvio or, for a time, Vladimir, given the great public hostility Bush stirred in many foreign lands.

Obama does not have that particular need or temperament. His earliest words and deeds make clear that foreign leaders will be dealing with a revitalized U.S. government and a strong foreign policy team, not exclusively with a presidential pal. Despite his relative youth and inexperience, Obama arrives among them as a professor and moral philosopher -- not as the sermonizing warrior of faith that Bush was.

The world has moved from the era of the American preacher into the era of the American teacher. Bush made much of having exorcised his personal demons and said we could all overcome external evil through belief. Obama tells us that our biggest problems lie within -- as do the solutions, if we will just look for them.

"Yes, we can" became "yes, we must," as Obama put away campaigning and began governing. "A new era of responsibility" will enable "the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth" to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories," said this brand-new president, not content to promise us just the moon.

The inaugural address was in fact not Obama's most spellbinding oratory. Except for a few flourishes, it was direct and simple, as if designed to make his listeners think about the message and to develop their own interpretations and memories. And that helped make it accessible for the rest of the world as well.

Firmly anchored in American history, the cool tones of the address nonetheless went down well with global audiences that watched it live on television, if my own experience that day, and international media reports since, are accurate guides.

To get an immediate sense of foreign reaction, I participated by satellite in a French television panel discussion held just after the speech. The most fervently admiring remarks in Paris were triggered by what many Americans would have taken as an offhand reference to the fact that, in Obama's words, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers."

It was a direct echo of what I think of as Obama's two best speeches -- the Philadelphia campaign address on race relations last year and a June 28, 2006, talk on religion and the need for tolerance, including by and toward nonbelievers.

In Paris, this passage was taken by my fellow panelists as a satisfying political obituary for the American preacher as national leader. They enthusiastically applauded the inclusiveness of Obama's verbal vision, both of the nation and of the world.

But for foreign rulers, American leadership in international affairs has always been an "up to a point" kind of thing. They shudder at having to deal with U.S. presidents who come on too strong (Bush) or too weak (Jimmy Carter). They want a Goldilocks president, one who fits into the global club without overshadowing them. And that may be hard for this charismatic, supremely self-confident new president.

Obama joins the ranks of a diverse and underwhelming leadership group that lacks a true center of gravity, much less a joint design to get out of the global economic quagmire in which they all flounder.

This former University of Chicago professor of constitutional law will be eagerly -- and anxiously -- welcomed by peers who include a fellow academic (Britain's Gordon Brown), a practicing lawyer (France's Nicolas Sarkozy), a physicist (Germany's Angela Merkel), a flamboyant, rich entrepreneur (Italy's Silvio Berlusconi) and a cold-blooded KGB operative who sits atop a system that increasingly condones the physical elimination of its critics (Russia's Vladimir Putin).

The engineers who run China, the ayatollahs of Iran and the autocrats of the Middle East will also nervously eye Obama's appeal as a global figure with a gift for identifying emerging themes and articulating them in captivating fashion. There is no reason to think that the political earthquake Obama launched in the United States three years ago will stop at the water's edge or has already run its course.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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