President Obama offered a robust defense of his foreign policy on Wednesday, using an address to the graduating class of the U.S. Air Force Academy to tout the accomplishments of his first term and to pledge to use a second to build "another great American century." In remarks reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" reelection campaign almost three decades ago, the president turned back critics who say that his leadership has been weak.
Obama talked about the improvements he sees in the international arena in the four years since the newly commissioned Air Force second lieutenants arrived in Colorado Springs as anxious cadets. In parts, the speech rebutted Republican assertions that Obama has had a "feckless" foreign policy. His defense ranged from ending the war in Iraq to strengthening alliances, to killing terrorists, to rebuilding the economy.
"Today," Obama said, "we can say with confidence and pride — the United States is stronger, safer, and more respected in the world." He said the work of the past four years has "laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership," and he urged the new officers to "start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned, that America is in decline."
Obama told the graduates that this is "a different world" from what they knew when they entered the academy. "You are the first class in nine years that will graduate into a world where there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in your lives — and thanks to Air Force personnel who did their part — Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to our country. We've put al-Qaida on the path to defeat. And you are the first graduates since 9/11 who can see clearly how we'll end the war in Afghanistan." And he said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending honorably, having defeated terrorists and denied them safe haven. "So we aren't just ending these wars; we're doing so in a way that makes us safer, and stronger," the president said.
That he was using the speech to respond to Republican attacks was clear. On the defensive after an unnamed aide was quoted saying the United States was "leading from behind" in Libya, Obama spoke of "preventing a massacre in Libya" with an international mission. He added quite pointedly: "which the United States and our Air Force led from the front."
More broadly, the president boasted that "around the world, the United States is leading once more" with stronger, deeper alliances. "We're leading" became his refrain--on global security, on the economy, against hunger and disease, and "on behalf of human dignity and freedom." Indirectly, Obama faulted prior leaders for putting too much of the burden solely on the military. "As good as you are, you can't be expected to do it alone," he said. "There are many sources of American power--diplomatic, economic, and the power of our ideals. We need to be using them all. And the good news today is we are."
The result, Obama insisted, is "a new feeling about America" that he contended is sweeping the globe. "There's a new confidence in our leadership." But even as he took credit, he tried to balance it with the need to do unpopular things. "The world stage is not a popularity contest," Obama said. "As a nation, we have vital interests, and we will do what is necessary to defend the country we love — even if it's unpopular. But make no mistake: How we're viewed in the world has consequences--for our national security, for your lives."
The remarks could have been given at the 1984 Republican National Convention that renominated Reagan. Obama mocked people in earlier eras who spoke of an American decline. "You'd think folks would understand a basic truth--never bet against the United States of America." Attacked by presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney for allegedly not believing in "American exceptionalism," the president said that the United States "has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs." He added, "This is one of the many examples of why America is exceptional."
Borrowing another page from Reagan's political playbook, he promised that "just like the 20th century, the 21st will be another great American century." To get there, Obama added, "We need to put America back to work.... We need to pay down our deficits, reform our tax code, and keep reducing our dependence on foreign oil. We need to get on with nation-building here at home."
And confronting still another Republican charge against him, he pledged to keep the military strong and avoid what he called "the mistakes of the past" when there was defense atrophy after wars were ended. "We still face very serious threats.... So, guided by our new defense strategy, we'll keep our military — and our Air Force — fast, flexible, and versatile. We will maintain our military superiority in all areas — air, land, sea, space and cyber."
The final Reagan touch was Obama's embrace of optimism that the country can surmount the current challenges to build that new American century--even as he made his second mention of American exceptionalism, just in case critics missed his first. He praised "the character of our country," calling it "the spirit that has always made us exceptional." Obama added, "It's that fundamental faith — that American optimism — which says no challenge is too great, no mission is too hard." That, he said, is "who we are. That's the America we love. Always young. Always looking ahead, to that light of a new day on the horizon."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.