In announcing his candidacy for the highest office in the land, the hopeful president said, “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” He repeated it a year later, in 1980, upon accepting his party’s nomination. The man was Ronald Reagan.
Another presidential aspirant claimed, on the eve of his election, that, “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” That man, Barack Obama, repeated on his 100th day in office that his ambitious agenda of “remaking America” had begun to take hold.
These statements are similar in that they represent bold visions. At the same time, they couldn’t be more different. One strides forward, confidently, with a vision for the world. The other limps backward with a new vision for America.
It matters because the rhetoric of politics is as important as the policy it seeks to promote. Rhetoric can inspire as easily it can obfuscate. Anyone can say anything. Precisely because rhetoric can take all shapes citizens have to take the measure of the men and women who seek to lead.
For example, Ronald Reagan was quoting Thomas Paine, who penned his line during the American Revolution. Reagan, looking toward the future with a message for the world, called for a rebirth of the uniqueness that is the American experiment—the singular moment of change in man’s relation to man and the primacy of self-government. Reagan’s policy proposals all flowed from his core principle: maximum freedom consistent with law and order.
Obama’s core principle remains elusive. In direct contrast to Reagan, Obama deployed impressive linguistic gymnastics that, while calling for change, lurched further backwards to a time before America’s birth. Rather than find a way to celebrate America, he described how he is out to remake it.
Accordingly, much has been written about Obama’s efforts to remake America. He has many social justice champions, like the late Sen. Edward Kennedy who wrote to Obama, “What we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
He has many detractors, like David Horowitz, who has detailed the similarities between Obama and Chicago’s radical revolutionary Saul Alinsky.
The truth is somewhere within these two extremes.
Obama knows he wouldn’t be where he is today were it not for the very uniqueness of America. In his inaugural address Obama said:
The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
Yet that doesn’t square with his Nobel speech, delivered just 11 months later, during which he says:
[T]here’s something irreducible that we all share. … [W]e’re all basically seeking the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families. And yet somehow, given the dizzying pace of globalization, the cultural leveling of modernity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular identities — their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion.
He moved from the God-given promise that we are all free to not mentioning liberty at all when saying we share something “Irreducible.”
He moved from the God-given promise that we all deserve a chance to pursue the full measure of our happiness to saying we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment.
In no uncertain terms, President Obama moved the world backwards.
Instead of watering them down, President Obama could have reminded the world that the surest, and fastest, way toward peace is in adopting the principles of liberty in the Declaration of Independence. It was written in America, but it applies to all of mankind.
There may be no better enunciation of the uniqueness of the Declaration of Independence, than in the way President Calvin Coolidge celebrated its 150th anniversary:
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
Obama received praise for accepting his peace prize while talking tough and selling the tenets of just war. That’s nonsense. The harder lift would have been to exclaim the virtues of America’s founding and how they apply to all of mankind, everywhere.
“Peace comes with freedom not subjugation,” he could have said, sending a message that transcends politics and borders, rankling every dictator and despot that clings to power.
“We will defend our freedoms at all costs,” he could have added as punctuation, sending a direct message to our enemies who target the very way we live, challenging their recruiting efforts.
Rather than talk of justice, we should have been steeled toward victory.
Rather than remake America, President Obama should seek to remake the world in the image of America.
Then, and only then, will the prize of peace be awarded to all of mankind.
Andrew Olivastro is vice president of Edelman‘s Washington, D.C., corporate practice.