“Latin America is at peace,” he said in Chile.
The world, however, has been busy. His speech was not the story. War always tends to trump peace.
In his first extended trip to Latin America, Obama was due to leave Wednesday on a fitting note: dealing with the crisis in Libya, the first war launched on his watch. Libya so dominated the atmosphere of Obama's journey that his agenda for the Americas felt secondary from the start. To many at home, it was.
Obama's last scheduled activity here was a strategy call on Libya with his national security team, not the long-planned tour of Mayan ruins in this small, coastal Central American country. The president, Mauricio Funes, openly wished for Obama to stay longer to enjoy the beaches.
The reality was that Obama was leaving town a few hours earlier than scheduled.
The forces pulling him away from his intended message, both abroad and at home, seemed as great as at any time in his presidency.
An entire swath of the Middle East and North Africa is in upheaval. And while the rapid transformations in Tunisia and Egypt emerged in relative peace, the White House is trying to help prevent the worst in volatile Yemen and Bahrain. A tsunami, earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan consumed attention just as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi tried to crush a rebellion.
It doesn't make for a great time to push his education agenda, as Obama has been trying to do all month back home.
And then came this trip. In the moment, it has two competing legacies.
The one seen by him and leaders in this vast part of the world is a visit that will pay off for years. A president's most valuable commodity is considered to be his time and even when Obama was on the brink of war, he still spent more than four days in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. It was a commitment not just to those democracies, but to an emerging region that hundreds of millions call home.
“A trip like this is extraordinarily important to advance our relationships in the Americas,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. “The benefits of good relations with these nations – in terms of economic growth, energy security and democracy promotion – will yield substantial benefits for the United States over time.”
Then there is the other legacy, the sense that Obama has been operating in another world.
The president has been heavily engaged in directing his war council and getting updates about the U.S.-led effort to pound Gadhafi's air defenses into history. Yet the optics, and some speeches, have felt out of place at times.
As war began – at about the same time as the trip – perhaps the most memorable images of Obama were of him kicking a soccer ball with eager children in Rio de Janeiro or standing in the moonlit mist with his family under the outstretched arms of the city's world-famous statue of Jesus.
He promoted energy cooperation and student exchange programs, but American reporters quizzed him for clarity on his war policy.
“I know our headlines are often dominated by events in other parts of the world,” Obama said in his speech in Chile, trying to draw attention back to his central point. “But let's never forget: Every day, the future is being forged by the countries and peoples of Latin America.”