Barack Obama has responded to the devastating earthquake in Haiti with precisely the combination of dignity and determination that Americans–who were so frustrated by the disengagement of former President George Bush after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2006–expected when they elected him.
At a time when there is so much disappointment regarding the unmet promise of a presidency that finished its first year on the bitter note of a lost U.S. Senate seat, Obama has responded to the crisis in a spirit that has the potential to reassure not just Haitians but Americans.
This is not to say that Obama has done right by Haiti at every turn. Nor is the point here to suggest that a president who has made more than his share of missteps (a badly bumbled health-care reform initiative) and misdeeds (a wholly wrongheaded decision to surge more troops into Afghanistan) during the first year of his tenure will be the perfect player this time.
But as the world came to recognize the full scope of Haiti’s humanitarian crisis–a crisis that grew more agonizing with a new tremor on Wednesday morning–the president has projected a concern and a commitment that meets the moment.
It is early in what could be a long presidency. So there is no need to suggest that we are seeing Obama’s finest moment.
Yet, we are seeing a fine moment.
In addition to an appropriate sense of urgency, the president’s central themes have been common cause and respect.
"We stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south," the president declared, as the full scope of the devastation came to be understood.
"To the people of Haiti, we say clearly and with conviction: you will not be forsaken, you will not be forgotten," continued Obama, as he announced $100 million in aid as part of the immediate relief effort. "In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you, the world stands with you."
These are mere words.
But words matter in a time of crisis, especially when they are linked to deeds.
And Obama’s words have struck precisely the right tone.
Obama’s statement following a phone conversation Friday with Haitian President René Préval balanced diplomacy and humanity with rare skill.
The American president paid due respect to Haiti’s sovereignty — an appropriately touchy issue for a country that has suffered more than its share of imperial abuse–and to the role that the United Nations and the broader international community is playing in the relief effort.
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But Obama also acknowledged American responsibilities and opportunities.
"(As) the international community continues to respond, I do believe that America has a continued responsibility to act. Our nation has a unique capacity to reach out quickly and broadly and to deliver assistance that can save lives," said the president. "That responsibility obviously is magnified when the devastation that’s been suffered is so near to us. Haitians are our neighbors in the Americas, and for Americans they are family and friends."
Few countries on the planet have suffered so long and so horribly as Haiti has at the hands of, at best, neglectful and, at worst, crudely violent U.S. politicians. From its founding in a slave revolt at the dawn of the 19th century, when Haiti’s anti-colonial struggle was so cruelly disregarded and even opposed by American leaders, through two centuries of economic and political exploitation–often at the hands of dictators propped up by the United States–Haiti has experienced little in the way of respect from its neighbor to the north.
So it is especially necessary, good and remarkably refreshing that, in this moment of so much need, an American president is responding appropriately to Haiti’s crisis.
Whether Obama will continue to respond appropriately remains to be seem. Haiti needs more than disaster relief. This amazing country must be freed from the unrelenting demands of an International Monetary Fund that crushes the poor beneath its bottom line, and it must be helped to initiate the sustainable development that might yet allow the Haitians to realize their full potential.
Obama and his administration have the resources and the authoritynot merely to save Haitians in their time of greatest need but to give Haiti a new lease on life.
The president’s initial response has been the right one. It is worthy of celebrating, both for its character and for the potential it holds out that this might be the point at which the United States and Haiti finally realize the quality of relations that Thomas Paine imagined in 1805.
After French colonial rule was overthrown by the Haitians, Paine urged Jefferson to position the United States as "a guarantee" of the freedom of Haiti in a manner that "accords with the humanity of her principles."
Thomas Jefferson did not rise to Paine’s call.
Nor, for the most part, did succeeding presidents.
But Barack Obama can. Indeed, if not just his presidency but his country is to realize its promise, he must.