Image: President Barack Obama, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
President Barack Obama and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tour the Sphinx and pyramids near Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday.
updated 6/5/2009 4:18:29 PM ET 2009-06-05T20:18:29

There he was, in the heart of the Muslim world, explaining the American mindset to Muslims and the world of Islam to Americans, with the bearing of a college professor.

In his long-awaited speech at the University of Cairo, President Barack Obama took a measured, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach to some of the most charged issues on the planet.

There were no new policy pronouncements on the Mideast, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons or other flashpoints in the Muslim world.

Instead, the speech was an attempt to at least get people talking — and listening — again.

"What's new here is that people are listening to this president," said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland. "They heard him empathize with their issues. They heard him express an understanding not only of their religion and culture, but their issues."

The president may have empathized, but he didn't emote.

As he has done in past speeches on the difficult issues of race and abortion, Obama seemed to position himself as a sort of neutral mediator, laying out the legitimate grievances of both sides — in this case, most notably the Israelis and Palestinians.

There were 37 "buts" in his speech Thursday, many employed in the cause of evenhandedness.

The fears and angers provoked in Americans by the 9/11 attacks were understandable, he said, "but in some cases it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals."

He's committed to fighting negative stereotypes of Islam, Obama said, "but that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America."

Video: The speech heard around the world Israelis and Palestinians alike have legitimate complaints and aspirations, he said, "but if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth."

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The son of a cultural anthropologist, Obama seemed to assume that mantle himself in explaining the angers and resentments of the present through the prism of the past. It was an extraordinary role for a U.S. president, one made more plausible by who he is — Barack Hussein Obama, born of a mother with Christian roots in Kansas and a father with Muslim beginnings in Kenya.

For every grievance on one side, Obama found another on the other.

The president spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust and said to deny it had happened was hateful. "On the other hand," he said, "it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslim and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland."

Iran has played a role in hostage-taking and violence against Americans, he said, but the U.S. earlier had played a role in overthrowing a democratically elected government there.

Criticism from conservatives
To a trio of former speechwriters for George W. Bush, Obama's attempt at fairness smacked of moral equivalence run amok.

"He's comparing things that shouldn't be compared," said Marc Thiessen.

"The president of the United States is not an honest broker between America and the rest of the world," said David Frum. "He's the leader of the United States, and so positioning himself as this kind of mediator is really a surprising thing to do. And it raises the question of if the president is the mediator, then who is America's representative?"

Michael Gerson said it's not a bad rhetorical device for Obama to position himself between two extremes.

Video: Obama cleaning up Bush messes But Gerson added, "In this desire for a kind of balance and evenhandedness, I think that he was unfair to our most important ally in the region, Israel, and dismissive of the achievements of another friend, Iraq."

Whatever the merits or flaws of Obama's comparisons, they amounted to a "a sort of denial of American exceptionalism," said Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's a very different perception of what Americans need to do and how to work with other people."

Obama said his goal with the speech was to "forge a new beginning" with the Muslim world after the strained relations of the Bush years.

"He turned the page," Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett said.

But with a new beginning comes hope for a better ending.

"The striking thing about Obama is that whenever he speaks to a crisis, without being highly emotional or highly charged, he manages to make it seem like we're more open to reason than we really are, more willing to move ahead than we really are," said Wayne Fields, a professor at the University of Washington in St. Louis and expert on presidential rhetoric. "It's a combination of hopefulness and a kind of calmness that's at the core of this kind of rhetoric."

That can be soothing in the short term, but ultimately feeds the hunger for concrete changes.

"Words matter a lot," the University of Maryland's Telhami said approvingly of the president's speech. "The problem for him will be that with every speech, he raises the expectations higher by raising the issues that people care about. ... They care much more about what the United States ultimately does."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama sees mystery in Egyptian pyramids


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