There has been a lot of commentary on President Obama’s speech on U.S. intervention in Libya earlier this week. Much of that commentary centered on Obama’s discussion of America’s role as a powerful moral force in the world: “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.” And again:
Let me close by addressing what this action says about the use of America’s military power, and America’s broader leadership in the world, under my presidency. . . Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -– responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.
. . . I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people.
Whether you agree or disagree with intervention in Libya, this was certainly the Obama that we saw during the election, the Obama of “Yes, we can.” And the political right, if anything, has sought to one-up this can-do attitude. William Kristol, in the Weekly Standard, although criticizing the administration for a muddled message in the lead-up to intervention in Libya, declared the mission would “probably succeed. . . ., and that [t]he United States really should have the backs of those fighting for freedom.” He also counseled that we shouldn’t “underestimate the capabilities of the American military.” He topped it off with a paean to optimism in America’s might: “The modern left expects the United States to lose its wars. Some on the left often seem to be rooting for American defeat. . . . [A]t their best, today’s conservatives—and the Republican party that is their vehicle—constitute the party of . . . victory. So Republicans should vote for victory in Congress . . . . After all, if we prevail in Libya—and in Afghanistan and Iraq—the victory will be America’s.”
Yet the “yes, we can” picture of the power and capability of the United States applies only to its ventures abroad. When it comes to describing U.S. power at home, a very different picture emerges from the political establishment. To paraphrase House Republican leader John Boehner’s denunciation of last year’s health care bill, the message being trumpeted is “Hell no, we can’t.” The contrast between the presentation of America’s vast capabilities overseas and its enfeebled condition at home is nowhere more stark than in the current discussion of the proposed budget cuts. No doubt Republicans, particularly House