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Obama Raises Tough Issues In Speech

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

When President Obama stood before a packed hall at Cairo University in Egypt yesterday, he spoke directly to the tensions between the United States and the Muslim world.

President BARACK OBAMA: …tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation but also a conflict and religious wars.

MONTAGNE: President Obama tackled all of the most contentious issues including: U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic extremism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Joining us to talk about the politics of this speech is NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What kind of reaction are we seeing, both here in the U.S. and also abroad?

LIASSON: The reaction was mixed but generally positive across the board. The president was praised for being kind of tough and evenhanded. U.S. analysts said that he while acknowledging that past U.S. policies had been harmful in the Middle East, he didn't apologize. He did stand up against extremism and for tolerance and pluralism. On the other hand, Middle East leaders seemed very appreciative that he talked about the daily humiliations of the Palestinians. He used the word Palestine.

He did get some criticism from Israelis and some of Israel's supporters in the U.S., that there was too much moral equivalence between the suffering of the Palestinians in the Holocaust. But he did also strongly condemn those who would deny the Holocaust. So I think this speech had something for everyone in it. It was aimed at multiple audiences and it appears to have worked, at least in its initial goal, which is using the power of a speech by this new U.S. president, with Muslim heritage, to try to really hit the reset button to plant some seeds and start a new beginning in U.S.-Muslim relation.

MONTAGNE: What about the president and his administration? Do you think they're pleased with the way the speech was received? I mean they got a standing ovation at the end, of course (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: I think they're very, very pleased. I received an 11-page press release detailing every single review from, you know, dozens of commentators in the Middle East and America about how great the speech was. It was separated into sections - general analysis, reaction from Middle East leaders. I think they're very, very pleased with it. They wanted a speech to show that the president was asking for a new beginning, holding up a mirror, being tough and evenhanded. And I think that they got the reaction that they wanted.

MONTAGNE: Mara, let's get back to the whole question of the Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, a big issue here in America for the president. And Mr. Obama said that they would have to make some hard choices if they want to move towards peace. Let - let's hear just a little bit of what he had to say yesterday.

Pres. OBAMA: But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth. The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met, through two states where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: Are these remarks, Mara, likely to bring us closer to negotiations or did he upset both sides?

LIASSON: Well, first of all we don't know if these remarks will lead us to negotiations. The Middle East peace process has been frozen. This is always the question with speeches by any president, particularly this president, how to leverage his powerful words and his popularity into real clout to get some results. But I don't think he unnecessarily upset both sides. I think the Israelis, especially after his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, knew what they were dealing with.

They knew that this administration is taking a slightly different approach to Israel, not changing the basic approach, but it's being much, much tougher about settlements. The president said he doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, although the U.S.-Israeli bond is unbreakable. So, I think they knew what they're going to get and we'll see if this gets some results.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, the president has some additional stops on this trip to Germany, today, in France. But when he gets back to Washington, what awaits him?

LIASSON: Health care and Sonia Sotomayor. Those are the two big things that he'll come back to. He wants to try to get a date for Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. He wants to push health care to get a bill voted on by both Houses of Congress before the August recess. And I think, after a trip like this, where he's received well abroad, it can't hurt, and it probably can only help him at home.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.