“Ich bin Ein Bland Speaker”: Barack Obama in Berlin

Today, Barack Obama became the latest American President to make the time honored mistake of travelling to Berlin with President Kennedy’s 1963 speech still ringing in his ears. Speaking almost 50 years to the day since President Kennedy spoke to a million Berliners from City Hall, Barack Obama sought to emulate the fallen hero of Camelot and came up short. Well short.

Where Kennedy delivered a short speech filled with emotion and passion, scribbled together on a flight over the Atlantic, Obama gave a cool and detached address that appeared to have been written by a committee and which was noticeably devoid of any resounding lines of its own or indeed original thought.

This was perhaps, a speech for its time, just as Kennedy’s was. Except that when Kennedy spoke it was to a divided city and a divided world and his voice gave hope and reassurance that the United States would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Berlin and the free world in the hour of maximum danger. That was the theme of the day, the moment and the era. In contrast, Obama delivered an aimless, meandering address that desperately lacked a center. To quote Churchill, like a poor dessert, it lacked a theme.

Obama suggested that this generation should not, indeed could not, rest on the laurels of the past generation or merely reflect on history. And yet he offered no specific sense of direction or a road map for the future, which was, of course, Kennedy’s genius. Instead, he delivered a smorgasbord of half-baked ideas and platitudes about co-existence. Climate change, nuclear disarmament, gay right, women’s rights, poverty reduction, economic rejuvenation, international trade, curing AIDS: All were covered in a speech that had no theme except its desire to be all things to all people. It was a liberal wish list of aspirations for an ideal world and totally at odds with the history of the last decade. Obama is, as he pointedly reminded the crowd, President of the United States and has been now for so long that he is into his second term. Yet his wish list of aspirations contained no sense that he felt any responsibility or capability to enact them or that he had done since January 2009.

The speech was high on expectations but low on delivery and lacking in passion. Time and again, Obama made direct or oblique reference to speeches of the past, but said nothing memorable himself. In fact, his repeated effort to quote from the past merely reinforced the vapid nature of his own remarks. Obama wisely referred to Kennedy’s other remarks from 1963, but in so doing, he failed to instill a sense of passion for the fallen icon, remorse at his passing or any of the vision that Kennedy inspired that day and in the years that followed.

Obama quoted Madison, Kant, Kennedy and King, yet in a speech that was staged on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, with his back to West Berlin, meters away from where Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Wall that divided the city and the world, Obama failed to mention the importance of the Gipper’s remarks, in what was a poor move that revealed the sad state of partisan American politics.

Obama’s delivery was faltering and it was notable that he was speaking to the crowd through 6 inches of armored glass from a text and not from a teleprompter. Maybe the sunlight prevented the auto-cue from working, but again, it was noticeable how dependent he is on the technology to deliver on the big occasions and how off his game he is when it fails.

“A world of Peace with Justice” emerged as a theme towards the end of the address, but this seemed forced. The loudest cheer came with the call to close Gitmo, but again, Obama has been president for 5 years, a time that has seen the magic luster compared to his last visit in 2008. There was a clear effort to address anger in regard to the NSA eavesdropping in the final section, but this received scant attention or response from the crowd.

It was, all in all, a remarkably unremarkable address.

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