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.