"If you really want to address the real issues in the region, if you want to re-establish U.S. leadership in that very important part of the world, the beginning and the start of a message of respect, a message of understanding, a message of reaching out, I don't think it's a sign of weakness, I think its sign of strength," he said.
Obama has met with key leaders from the region over the last several weeks, sitting down first with King Abdullah yesterday and then newly elected conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas last month.
The president also discussed the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, saying "this is not simply about America's interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path."
The president started his trip Wednesday at King Abdullah's royal farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then flew to Cairo. Neither country is particularly heralded for its record on democracy or human rights, so the president faced the challenge of striking a balance between discussing those issues while not seeming as if he were imposing U.S. values or standards.
Earlier today, Obama met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Quba Palace in Cairo. The two leaders discussed the Middle East peace process and other regional issues, and Obama said he emphasized that America is committed to working in partnership with countries in the region.
Obama and Mubarak were scheduled to meet at the White House last week, but the Egyptian president canceled when his grandson died.
The two leader toured the Sultan Hassan Mosque with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
White House officials said the speech should not be seen as an endorsement of Mubarak's government, but noted that Egypt represents the heart of the Arab world and Obama can address such issues as democracy and human rights in a broad sense.
Without mentioning Mubarak by name or spotlighting his government in Egypt, Obama said that governments that protect the rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights and equal justice are "ultimately more stable, successful and secure."
"Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them," the president said.
The White House extended invitations to dissidents and opponents of the Mubarak regime, "so the audience will be reflective of that political culture," National Security Council spokesman Dennis McDonough said.
Obama did not have individual meetings set up with these political groups on his public schedule.
Cairo University served as a compelling backdrop for Obama's message on democracy and rule of law. The 100-year-old university has been a center of student pro-democracy protests and is a symbol of liberalism in Egypt.
The White House went to great lengths to make sure Obama's speech reached as many eyes and ears as possible, employing unprecedented efforts to connect through online social networking sites, aspiring to reach the estimated 20 million Arab Facebook members, using features on the site to promote the speech and Obama's message. The White House also employed MySpace, Twitter and YouTube.