One thing President Obama knows how to do is give a good speech. He delivered one today before the British Parliament, which was gathered in London's majestic Westminster Hall where no US president has ever spoken before.
In a nutshell, the president focused on the democratic and free-market values that bind the United States and the United Kingdom, and that sustain their leadership role in the world.
Values talk can get poo-pooed as empty rhetoric. But this was the right time and place for today's speech, coming in the middle of the president's week-long tour of Europe.
It's been a particularly rocky decade between the US and Europe generally, with war and recession challenging the world's democracy leaders. Europeans have been looking for a "reset" in transatlantic relations. At the same time, a vital corner of the world is now reaching for the rights that Americans, Britons, and other Europeans enjoy – a confirmation that it is values, and not just policies, that drive people.
"As two of the most powerful nations in history, we must always remember that the true source of our influence hasn't just been the size of our economy, the reach of our military, or the land that we've claimed," the president said. "It has been the values that we must never waver in defending around the world – the idea that all human beings are endowed with certain rights that cannot be denied."
On a global scale, you can see the difference that democratic values make. Security and economic interests – and arm-twisting – drove Russia and China to allow the UN no-fly resolution on Libya. But it is the democratic doer countries of NATO that are carrying out the military mission. And it is the freedom idea that caused Libyan rebels to denounce Turkey – a democracy – for resisting a no-fly zone.
Values without deeds are what make for empty rhetoric. At important points in history, the Americans and British have infused their morals with meaning – on the beaches at Normandy, during the cold war, and in the post-communist era.
This century demands more democratic deeds, otherwise known as leadership. That is the test for Mr. Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and other leaders of the ever-growing democratic club.