His Cairo speech asserted that a country should not impose its system of government upon another.
Tucked inside President Obama's 55-minute speech Thursday to the world's Muslims were four paragraphs that laid out his approach to democracy.
His message? America recognizes a universal yearning for the right to self-government, but regime change in democracy's name is over.
"No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other," Mr. Obama said.
That premise distances the president from the controversial doctrines of the Bush administration and reestablishes a more traditional approach to encouraging democracy. Critics called it a a cheap crowd-pleaser that misrepresented the reasons the US invaded Iraq.
Presidents at least since Harry Truman have encouraged democratic change and applied pressure to bring it about. But use of force to achieve that end was rare.
Obama "is trying to set the restart button somewhere back before George W. Bush," says Thomas Carothers, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "This is a post-Bush recalibration."
But others say Obama's statement carries the whiff of an apology for the Iraq invasion, which encourages an incorrect stereotype about US action under President Bush.