Obama revisits the promises of 2008 in legacy-minded Berlin speech

BERLIN -- In 2008, some 200,000 people packed the streets near this city’s Victory Column and listened raptly to candidate Barack Obama promise to lead a different America on the chaotic global stage – one that would embrace action to fight climate change, shutter the Guantanamo Bay prison for suspected extremists, seek to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons stockpiles and battle poverty.

On Wednesday, some 6,000 invited guests filled part of the square on the East side of the city’s Brandenburg Gate to hear President Barack Obama…well, promise action to fight climate change, shutter Guantanamo Bay, work towards eliminating the world’s nuclear stockpiles, and battle poverty.

I still have time to fulfill my promises, he seemed to be saying. The ones I haven't kept, they aren’t broken, just deferred.

Speaking from behind a forbidding wall of bulletproof glass, Obama quoted President John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” address and recalled Ronald Reagan’s June 1987 “tear down this wall” speech. He could hardly do otherwise. But the politician he truly channeled was that promise-maker of 2008. And the one who seemed most on his mind was the Obama who will shoulder history’s judgment.

“As I’ve said, Angela and I don’t exactly look like previous German and American leaders,” he said of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a near word-for-word reprise of 2008, when he underlined “I know that I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city.”

But the power of Obama’s biography has dimmed in the shadow of controversy: The prospective first black American president from 2008 is now the first American president to openly acknowledge that he has ordered the assassination of U.S. citizens overseas. (The poster pictured half-way down in this Yahoo News story provides a brutal summary). And the NSA spying scandal weighed down Obama's speech with an unapologetic defense of government surveillance.

"Our current programs are bound by the rule of law, and they're focused on threats to our security -- not the communications of ordinary persons. They help confront real dangers, and they keep people safe here in the United States and here in Europe," he insisted. "But we must accept the challenge that all of us in democratic governments face: to listen to the voices who disagree with us; to have an open debate about how we use our powers and how we must constrain them; and to always remember that government exists to serve the power of the individual, and not the other way around."

Ahead of the speech, the White House worked to focus reporters on its core proposal: Deep new cuts to America’s nuclear arsenal.

Obama delivered, calling for reducing America’s deployed nuclear weapons by up to one third, seeking new talks with Russia for more cuts, and drawing down the short-range nukes Washington and Moscow still have deployed in Europe.

“Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons -- no matter how distant that dream may be,” the president declared. (The message in 2008? “This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.” On this, at least, Obama has scored some important victories, notably Senate ratification of the New START arms control treaty). But Republicans quickly warned they would oppose new cuts, alleging that Russia has been violating its current commitments.

As he did last month, Obama vowed to shutter the notorious Guantanamo Bay facility that holds about 170 prisoners -- including some cleared for release but without a clear path home.

"Even as we remain vigilant about the threat of terrorism, we must move beyond a mindset of perpetual war. And in America, that means redoubling our efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo," he said.

But it was Congress that served notice in early 2009 that it would not go along with that campaign promise. And it's not at all clear that lawmakers will go along with it before he leaves office in 2017. And it was Congress -- the Senate, specifically -- that blocked Obama's push for an ambitious cap-and-trade mechanism to battle global warming.

Obama warned Wednesday that climate change "is the global threat of our time" and implored the world to "get to work" on slowing or reversing it "before it is too late." He praised Germany and Europe, which he said have led on the issue, and defended the more modest steps his administration has taken.

"We know we have to do more -- and we will do more," he said.

(The 2008 promise? "This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands. Let us resolve that all nations - including my own - will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere.")

Five years ago, Obama argued that "this is the moment when we must give hope to those left behind in a globalized world," saying it was time to "extend our hand to the people in the forgotten corners of this world who yearn for lives marked by dignity and opportunity; by security and justice" and work to "banish the scourge of AIDS in our time."

He re-emphasized those themes Wednesday. "We have a moral obligation and a profound interest in helping lift the impoverished corners of the world," he said, pleading with world leaders to "do everything we can to realize the promise -- an achievable promise -- of the first AIDS-free generation. That is something that is possible if we feel a sufficient sense of urgency."

Obama’s star may have dimmed a bit, but civil engineer Bernd Schneider, 63, still took the day off to come to Berlin from Leipzig, an hour south by train. Tight security means he never got close to the president.

“I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about," Schneider told Yahoo News.

“Obama is OK. I’m not really bothered by the [National Security Agency] snooping. I grew up in East Germany, and you just can’t compare it with the Stasi [or the Ministry for State Security, the former secret police of East Germany]. I guess if I send pictures of my vacation and say, ‘The weather was the bomb,’ I’m going to be scanned. But I don’t mind if it helps stop terrorism,” he said. “However, I’m pretty un-German about stuff like that.”

Editor's note: Olivier Knox reported from Washington.