But the thing that has sustained America and helped it flourish is not that we are always right (far from it: our transgressions have regularly rivaled our triumphs), but that we sometimes see we must change. We have a system that contains the seeds of its own reinvention. And this weekend, our cool, cautious president seemed to conclude that this was one of those moments.
Of course, it remains to be seen if that will be so. For all the reasons that common-sense change has yet to have come, it will be hard to produce. But one couldn't help but observe a change in the president this weekend. Some of it may have had to do with how he has grown on the job. Some of it may have had to do with his solid victory in November. Some may have had to do with the fact that his tough negotiating stance with the Republicans seemed to be moving the country toward a deal on the "fiscal cliff."
I repeat: Nothing is assured. Time and again, Obama has been a leadership tease, making a soaring speech and following it up with halfway measures or delays. To the doubters this time, I say: Go watch the speech. Watch Obama. Don't be distracted by relatively minor recent setbacks like the Susan Rice dust-up. After all, in the end, the president wasn't distracted. He stayed focused on the work at hand, on negotiations on the Hill, on making selections for his second-term cabinet.
As far as how that may impact the rest of this world, we shall start to see the consequences fairly soon. Later this week, Obama is likely to name an experienced, potent national security team led by Sen. John Kerry, currently chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that, working with a more confident president, could be an assertive, effective force on the international stage. In fact, expect them to start out actively engaging in the most urgent of the issues of the Middle East, from Syria to Iran to Egypt to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
And this weekend's events may have even more important implications, because at this moment in U.S. history, almost all the greatest national security challenges the country faces are domestic in nature. As historian Paul Kennedy long ago noted, great nations tend to fall from within. Not only do guns kill far more Americans than terrorists ever will, but we are suffering from grievous internal fiscal bleeding and, to date, from a political system that has been sadly dysfunctional. That dysfunction, despite what you may read, has happened before in our history. But then some crisis, some catalyst, some series of developments, produces real leadership -- and that's when change and growth and progress and renewal happens.
This could be one of those moments. You will see telling hints as to whether the change is real in the weeks ahead. If the president is able to cut a deal on the fiscal cliff, if he takes meaningful steps toward gun control, and if he moves on the more ambitious elements of his second term-agenda -- like immigration reform, promoting investment in education and infrastructure, or shaping a sustainable national energy policy -- then you will know that this is a different Obama.
In his address before the Newtown vigil on Sunday evening, the president concluded with a ringing call to action. After a heartbreaking litany of the names of the murdered children, Obama said, "God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory."
That is a tall order. But if you believe as I do that our most basic mission in life is to love our children and that it should inform every action we take, it is also precisely the right star for a head of state or a great nation to steer by.