Obama's speech comes during a time when the region is undergoing unprecedented change. The movement for democracy began with the toppling of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime in Tunisia, then the popular revolt in Egypt that brought down the longtime rule of President Hosni Mubarak, and then civil unrest in Libya to overthrow Gadhafi.
Similar uprisings are taking hold across the Arab world. In Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, scores of people have died in recent months as their government attempts to squelch protests.
The United States has so far taken a back seat in the regional movements, with the exception of a few countries, and many in the region says Obama needs to do more. In Libya, the United States is supporting the NATO-led coalition against Gadhafi, although after taking the lead on the mission, the United States is now taking a back up role.
Obama signed an executive order Wednesday imposing sanctions against al-Assad and six other senior government officials. The same day, the White House called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to push him to sign and implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement that would result in his stepping down within a month.
Despite the push toward democracy, the image of the United States in the Muslim world remains negative. In countries like Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan, views are even more negative than they were one year ago, according to a report released this week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Those surveyed said they felt the United States disregarded the interests of other countries and acted mostly unilaterally in world affairs.
The survey found that except Indonesia, Obama remains unpopular in Muslim nations and most disapprove of the way he has handled calls for political change roiling the Middle East.
At the same time, sympathy toward Islamic fundamentalists remains strong in some parts. In Pakistan, nearly half of those polled said they they sympathize more with Islamic fundamentalists than those who disagree with them. In the Palestinian territories, that number dropped to 37 percent, with Jordan and Egypt trailing closely behind.
ABC News' Jake Tapper, Kirit Radia and John Parkinson contributed to this report.