Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech Echoes FDR, JFK

His Nobel speech recalled his Democratic predecessors

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The president's landmark speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize was a classic Obama address. In a high-stakes setting, he tackled substantive issues--war and peace--with nuance and deft. He treated his audience like thinking adults. And (rarely in contemporary politics) received deserved praise from both sides of the aisle. The response to the speech, as Politico's Ben Smith aptly put it, is "the sound of consensus, one that seemed briefly in doubt a month or two ago."

And while he talked about the new challenges of a new era--"a decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats"--Obama also employed themes and language that echoed his 20th century forebears. Reading Obama's speech, I could hear echoes especially of FDR and of JFK.

Obama alluded to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the righte he enumerated--freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want--come from FDR's Four Freedoms, first enunciated in the conclusion to his 1941 State of the Union address. The Four Freedoms became a rallying point for the Allies during World War II and a guiding principle during the founding of the United Nations. They are in fact enshrined in the preamble to the universal declaration. And clearly (and happily) guide the country today.

But Obama's speech resonated even more clearly with JFK.

It's easy to see the president's statement that the United States has "helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms" as a reminder of the Kennedy's inaugural address that the trumpet was summoning us to "bear the burden of a long twilight struggle..." Obama added: "We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest--because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity."

Obama actually quoted from Kennedy's famous 1963 peace speech at American University. ("Let us focus ... on a more practical, more attainable peace, based on not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.") In that speech, JFK asked "What kind of peace do we seek?" Obama Thursday discussed, "the nature of the peace that we seek."

Obama noted that, "as the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we'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." In perhaps the most famous line from his AU speech, Kennedy said that, "in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

More broadly, Obama's rejection of the "tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists--a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values on the world," fit very nicely into the world view of JFK, who described himself as "an idealist without illusions." As Ted Sorensen, JFK's close aide and speechwriter, put it, "He believed in retaining a choice--not a choice between 'Red and dead' or 'holocaust and humiliation,' but a variety of military options in the event of aggression, an opportunity for time and maneuver in the instruments of diplomacy, and a balanced approach to every crisis which combined both defense and diplomacy."

"There's no simple formula here," Obama said Thursday. "But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time."

Such echoes are no surprise and speak to the tradition Obama carries on in terms of American policy and American ideals. His predecessors would have approved.

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