Given the months of criticism that his pragmatism bordered on timidity, President Obama's recent actions — ordering the assault that killed Osama bin Laden, and making his surprising speech on the Middle East — have people marveling at his boldness.
Not everyone likes it. Among the harshest critics of the speech Thursday was Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney, who said Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus" by suggesting its 1967 borders be used as the basis to create a Palestinian state.
Of course, Romney's rhetoric is politically calculated. This is the same person who in April lambasted Obama at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Obama got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, but a recent poll shows 46 percent of American Jews are considering voting for someone else.
Divorced from its impact on American presidential politics, Obama's position on what must occur for Palestinian and Israeli states to coexist makes sense. Nor is it very different from what previous U.S. presidents have urged, though Obama stated the matter more clearly.
"The borders of Israel should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps," he said. The reference to "land swaps" is meant to open the door for new negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.
But Obama also stressed that the Palestinians "will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist." He pledged this country's unwavering commitment to protect Israel. Suggestions that he pulled back from that promise are wrong.
Perhaps even more important to peace in that region than Obama's comments on Israel was what he had to say about the freedom uprisings in a number of Arab states. Observers noted that Obama seemed to set a new standard for foreign policy that could threaten some long-term relationships.
Obama said the United States supports "universal rights," which include "free speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the law, the right to choose your own leaders." That doesn't exactly describe longtime ally Saudi Arabia, does it?
Obama said his goal is to align U.S. foreign-policy interests with this country's values by promoting democratic reform.
Mindful of the criticism he still receives for not doing more to help the failed democracy movement in Iran in 2009, Obama made commitments, in varying degrees, to support the reformers in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and Morocco.
Fulfilling those promises won't be easy. Take Bahrain. How far will Obama go to support a movement to bring down a government that provides a base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet? His speech Thursday suggests the United States will put freedom above expediency in choosing its friends. Other presidents have tried but didn't adhere to that policy.