Fair. Balanced. American.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Edward Luce

A hopeful piece from a Financial Times reporter who has already proven he's unafraid to burn his bridges with potential sources in the Obama Administration.
More is known about Mr Obama today than a few weeks ago. As was the case during his campaign, he can drift for long patches. Then something happens - Hillary Clinton crowns herself the inevitable winner in the primaries, or Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, insults the administration once too often - and a more purposeful Mr Obama emerges.

The Massachusetts defeat was such a moment. It turned him from America's lecturer-in-chief, who had even his most ardent supporters nodding off mid-paragraph, into the robust campaigner who could electrify his troops. Having allowed Congress to manage the healthcare bill for its first nine months, Mr Obama in early February finally took day-to-day control.

He led from behind the scenes, holding decisive strategy sessions with Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Harry Reid, Senate leader. He has also made more use of his cabinet, including Kathleen Sebelius, health secretary. And he led in public, flying to carefully located town hall events in districts represented by wavering Democrats. By showing spine, Mr Obama made it easier for Democrats in marginal seats to show spine as well.

At his rousing pep talk to Democrats on Capitol Hill before last weekend's vote, Mr Obama appealed to what may have originally motivated lawmakers to enter politics. "Every once in a while, you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes you had about yourself," he said. "This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, doggone it, this is exactly why I came here."

So what happens next? Three consequences are apparent. First, Mr Obama seems to be getting better at governing. That bodes well for his ability to push through other reforms, including the re-regulation of Wall Street, the next item on his list. Given what the past week has done for his approval ratings, which have shot up, he might also prove an asset for Democrats on the campaign trail in November. They will need him.

"The lesson from the last few weeks is that President Obama should not delegate too much of the initiative to Congress," says Simon Rosenberg, head of NDN, formerly the New Democrat Network, a Washington think-tank. "If he leads from the front good things are more likely to happen."

Second, success at home helps abroad. It may have been a coincidence but it seemed fitting that Mr Obama on Wednesday pulled off his most tangible foreign policy success yet - reaching the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treatywith Russia to make deep cuts in the countries' nuclear arsenals - the day after he signed healthcare reform into law.

Likewise, the evening he signed healthcare, he showed relish, and invested a certain amount of thought, in fashioning a humiliation for Mr Netanyahu. It was a rare glimpse of him behaving as an alpha male in response to someone who had treated him as a pushover, most recently in a speech in Washington on Monday, by openly mocking Mr Obama's desire for a settlements freeze in Jerusalem.

The president's revenge the following evening was perhaps rendered with the swagger of a man who had a few hours before enacted a reform that eluded all his Democratic predecessors. Then again, maybe not. "I think it's safe to say that Obama really, really dislikes Netanyahu," says an unpaid White House foreign policy adviser. In a calculated snub, the Israeli prime minister was ushered into the White House for a meeting with no photographers to record it. After 90 minutes of unfriendly discussion, he was left to stew in the Roosevelt room with his advisers while Mr Obama went and ate supper alone (his family was in New York). They then resumed their meeting.

It may sound trivial. But by the standards of diplomacy, particularly those of US-Israeli diplomacy, Mr Obama's behaviour was rude. It was read as such in Israel - with quite a lot of Israelis approving, according to the country's media.

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