9 Moments That Mattered

by James Fallows


As an American, I care most about Barack Obama's effect within my own country. But I've watched his rise and now his assumption of power mainly from overseas, so let me do the impossible and attempt to say how "the world" views his start in office.

From the perspective of most outsiders, Obama is of course a success, simply because he is not the reviled George W. Bush. (I say this even though my current home, China, is one of three or four places where most people would have been happy to bring Bush back for a third term. Others: Albania, plus probably Poland and Israel.) And he is of course a failure, simply because he is not the Messiah-like FDR/Lincoln hybrid that many Europeans and others had begun to envision by Election Day. And of course, no one knows how Americans or anyone else will feel about him two years from now -- or four, or eight. We love the "100 Days" marker, but things that prove to matter about a presidency usually don't show up this soon.

Still, as I've checked news sites and watched TV reports from around the world, I've been struck by the cumulating success of the Obama launch. Here are the moments that I think have mattered outside the United States even more than they did inside. The list starts with the one I consider most important and works down, but you could put them in pretty much any order you want. The point about them collectively is the emerging message they send about the way this president views America's place in the world.

1. April 5 (or, in 100 Days mode, Day 76 of the Obama presidency, counting January 20 as Day 1.) Obama's speech in Prague about eliminating nuclear weapons (official text here). From an international perspective, this speech was a counterpart to Obama's post-Rev. Wright, campaign-saving address on race relations, in Philadelphia, a little more than a year ago. That is, it addressed a question of first-order seriousness - in this case, what is to become of the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads still around - and handled it with both clarity and complexity. He also showed that it was possible to talk seriously about terrorist threats without fear-mongering. This line was noted around the world (friends in Japan sent me messages about it within minutes): "As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act." Obama said that without guilt, apology, or suggestion that Harry Truman's decision to bomb Japan had been wrong, but nonetheless as a historical truth to be recognized. A speech worthy of the great post-World War II American statesmen.

2. April 4 (Day 75). Obama's answer at a press conference in Strasbourg about whether he believed in "American exceptionalism." The minor point here was about performance-dexterity. At a time when the right-wing press in America was insisting that Obama could not complete a sentence without teleprompter help, he met an essay-question type challenge with an impromptu response that would be hard to improve on even with long, careful effort. (YouTube here.) The major point was, again, the seriousness of his reply. Is America exceptional? The entire world knows it is. Its influence, its wealth, its military power, the very fact that someone like Obama could become its president. But to have an American president explain that "exceptional" does not mean "unaccountable," that he can love his country while admiring others - this has an effect. It was an answer that Americans could be proud of and foreigners could respect.

3. April 2 (Day 73 -- it was a good week). In London, Obama's role as counselor/arbitrator between Nicolas Sarkozy and Hu Jintao. As first described, this seemed a "too good to check" anecdote, or a chestnut from some potboiler Washington novel: the leaders of two major countries getting angrier and angrier at each other over a negotiating detail, until the American president takes them each aside, urges them to calm down, and comes up with a compromise term both can accept. On further reporting, the story seems to have held up. Here's why it matters: not for what it shows about the leaders of China and France, or the detail they were arguing over, but what it showed about a new American president's comfort in this milieu. Five months into his presidency, John F. Kennedy had seemed rattled and nervous in his first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. This is a better way to make a debut.

4. April 14 (Day 85 - and passim, Days 1- 100). April 14 is when Obama gave his address on economic policy at Georgetown University, the most comprehensive and thought-through explanation of how he was trying to deal with the world economic meltdown. (Official text here.) Inside America, people blame bankers, or sub-prime borrowers, or Alan Greenspan, or Bernard Madoff, or who have you for the economic disaster. The rest of the world blames America. No one knows how Obama's rescue plans, in their changing variety, will work. The Administration's presentation of them has not always been smooth, especially when that presentation has come from Secretary Geithner. But the mood around the world would be a lot darker without the sense that at least Obama himself has an idea of how the plan fits -- that he can explain the long-term goal. If it really doesn't work, then today's calmness will seem like complacency. But that's not for these first 100 days.

5. March 19 (Day 59), Obama's taped Persian New Year greeting to the public of Iran. (YouTube here.) This was in the same category as his lifting of restrictions on family contacts with Cuba (April 13, Day 84) and his handshake with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas (April 18, Day 89). Gestures like these do nothing - directly - to resolve the genuinely difficult issues with the respective countries, most difficult of all with Iran. (The change in the Cuba rules at least helped many families, plus indicating future movement away from the most out-of-touch-with-reality aspect of U.S. foreign policy.) But they cost very little, and they indirectly position the U.S. better for the long game of winning respect and support. Obama has figured out something everyone outside the country knows: America looks both more powerful and more attractive when it seems confidently at ease, not thin-skinned or cocky.

6. January 22 (Day 3). Obama's executive orders outlawing torture, starting to close Guantanamo, etc. If he had not done these things, that omission would be number one on the "what the world doesn't like" list. I've placed his signing of the orders down here because, from an outside perspective, it is an "of course" consequence of his election. The sorting-out of responsibility for the era of torture is not a first-order international issue ... yet. If the U.S. does not soon establish a "Truth Commission" or similar body, that will change.

7. January 21 (Day 2). Obama's meeting at the White House with Gen. Petraeus, Adm. Mullen, Sec. Gates, et al to draw up plans for Afghanistan and (leaving) Iraq. This mattered for showing that he was still serious about these issues, even thought his hair was on fire dealing with the economy. If Afghanistan turns into a morass for the United States - the main foreign fear about his policy so far - a sequel to The Best and the Brightest will no doubt begin with this meeting.

8. February 20 (Day 32). Hillary Clinton visits China. As Senator, Hillary Clinton had been China's candidate during the Democratic primaries. (They knew her and liked her husband; they had no idea who Obama was.) But Chinese officialdom feared that as Secretary of State she'd mainly be lecturing them about trade surpluses and Tibet. When she got to Beijing, she said that China and America disagreed about serious issues, and both sides knew it - but that at the moment they had a financial/economic emergency to deal with, and right behind it serious environmental work to do. Some Americans called this kowtowing, which to me seemed a huge misreading. It was recognition of reality: any global economic or environmental proposal that doesn't involve China is a joke. Thousands of miles from the DC gossip, I don't know whether Hillary Clinton is seen as a faultlessly loyal Secretary of State. From out here, on the receiving end, that's how she looks - which is good for her, good for Obama, and good for the United States.

9. April 2 (Day 73). Michelle Obama sits with schoolgirls in London and tells the mainly non-white students that they should dream their biggest dreams - and meanwhile study very hard. I assume this played well in the U.S. You can't imagine how well it played outside.

Because a ten-point list seems too pat, I'll stop here - though there are some other candidates. (January 12, Day -12. Pre-inauguration meeting with the President of Mexico, a sign of respect. Or, April 6, Day 77: Speech to the Turkish parliament including the line, "Let me say this as clearly as I can: the United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject." This is not higher up in the list mainly because George W. Bush said similar things.)

People who oppose Obama in the U.S. could surely come up with a list of things they don't like, but I'm not talking about the internal American debate. I bet they couldn't produce a very long list of decisions and signals that had played poorly in the rest of the world. A strong start doesn't guarantee anything. But it's better than the alternative.

Comments (5)

Obama has done the easy things - all the problems that can be fixed without fighting major battles inside Washington.  But the real difficultnadequate regulation of banks, brokerages & insurers, the problems in medical care and education, the promises of retirement income that cannot be met due to lack of funding, the budget problems at state and local government level - are what will determine his success or failure as a president.  He obviously genuinely means well, unlike the previous president, so most people will give him the benefit of the doubt.I doubt that he will make real progress until he can defeat the alliance of politicians and insiders who see government office as a way to generate earmarks and similar stupid or wasteful use of national resources.

Besides the great tact that Obama demonstrates when dealing with the world outside the US, it is his ability to be coherent, to present his views in a way that elucidates, that informs, and also reassures, that separates him from the bumbling and bombastic rhetoric of the preceding administration. Isn't that what is really at the core of all your 9 points? He is able to accept that there are other points of view in the world at large and is willing to express some respect for those points of view. What a relief after the last 8 years!

How can anyone admire a man who goes around the world apologizing for his country, bad-mouthing it ....as if it had been a bad nation until the his appearance on the scene. He is not doing this for America's sake; it's all in the interest of raising his own value by lowering America's value. This is a self-centered man who keeps saying "it's not about me", but cannot get away from 'I', 'me'..etc Never has a man said so many beautiful phrases, yet said so little.

So many people being fooled so much of the time...

Mo makes a good point: that one of Obama's greatest enemies is the entrenched system itself. Which very possibly, could prove too strong to defeat by anyone. If that be the case, I don't feel Obama should be held entirely responsible. That he appears to be trying - in his careful, incremental way - to take on the system is encouraging. But like others, I wait to see more. And I hope.

If nothing else, it is indeed a relief to have a president who can 'represent.' Like it or not, style does matter. I never understood the Bush Administration's penchant for making macho, abrasive remarks as the opening salvo to other countries. It sets up a dynamic where the other nation must respond in kind or look weak.

I am in no way suggesting you could sweet talk Al Qaeda. No amount of pretty words will sway maniacs like that. But there is a real value in appealing to moderates, which exist in every country. Obama gets this.

It takes a different kind of courage to risk looking deferential to one's enemies, like Iran or Venezuela. Our president has the wisdom and maturity to take such risks, ironically making this young man seem much more like a grown-up than the more elderly administration he replaced.


Fallows is of course correct. "A strong start doesn't guarantee anything, but it's better than the alternative." As one who also watches from outside of the USA, I have to say that everything Fallows notes rings very true to my own experience. I was especially heartened by Obama's careful reflection on the question of American exceptionalism. Here was an American President who I felt (for perhaps the first time in my experience) genuinely could articulate a respectful and intelligent point of view on this subject. I was proud.

There is a confident humility that comes across in all of the encounters that I have observed. I am hopeful that it is a genuine reflection of the man's heart.

Thank you to Fallows for a helpful reflection.