How To Measure Obama Now

While passing health care did not make Obama any stronger in foreign policy, the fact that he is perceived as stronger makes him, well, stronger.

The passage of health care reform in the US is certainly “a big f****** deal,” but how does it influence or change things that this blog cares about – the Middle East.  There has been a lot of talk about how health care reform has shown Obama to be a strong president and that foreign leaders better look out.  But there are also commentators who point out that, well, no, there will be no difference in Obama.  So what is true?  Simply put, both are true.  Obama is not any stronger because he was able to pass health care, but he might be perceived as stronger.  And sometimes perception of strength is indistinguishable from strength itself.

Our friends over at Blogging the Casbah have a good post about the effect health care might have on the Middle East.  The Rooster compares taking on the insurance lobby to taking on the Israeli lobby, saying that Obama will “have significantly improved his negotiating power when it comes to Israel and the settlement expansions.”  The author concludes with:

This and a few other reasons are considerations that should have every Palestinian, Arab, pro-peace, two-state solution supporter clapping loudly for comprehensive healthcare reform in America. I mean, all I’m saying is that I’m saying…

Should the pro-peace parties be clapping?  Obama met with PM Netanyahu on Tuesday (Obama was only in town because he postponed a trip to Indonesia to deal with health care) and right before the meeting, Israel announced more construction in East Jerusalem.  Welcome to Obama’s new Era of Strength.  Palestinians are probably not applauding that.

[tweetmeme] Yet, Laura Rozen chimes in on the debate as well.  She notes that international leaders often view progress on health care as a gauge of presidential strength; health care reform = strong president.  Rozen also points to the lessons that Obama must have learned, notably, keep pushing.  Perhaps most importantly, Rozen says that the Israelis no longer see Obama as a pushover:

Netanyahu’s aides have recently confided that they see Obama as a weak leader whose tenure they can weather, but that calculus may now have to change. After his health care victory, says Wexler, “the president is now a much stronger president, and that will play out in a variety of ways in the Middle East, and also in his direct relations with the leaders in the region, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Stephen Walt seems to disagree.  For him, health care reform is completely unrelated to Obama’s standing abroad.  With midterm elections this year and presidential elections in two years, Obama’s focus is still on domestic issues (read: the economy).  If the President received any popularity or strength bump from health care, he is most likely to use it domestically.  Furthermore, foreign governments are not going to change their policies because of health care:

Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons. And somehow I don’t think those drug lords at war with the Mexican government are going to go out of business because 32 million uninsured Americans are about to get coverage. And even if Obama does seize the moment to push Middle East peace talks — a risky step in an election year — only a cock-eyed optimist would expect a deal in short order.

Marc Lunch, meanwhile, simply throws up his arms.  Perhaps this means that Obama has a long-term strategy for the Middle East; perhaps he is patiently biding his time until he can push Israel to peace; perhaps Jerusalem construction is a means to create American anger and political cover for pressure on Israel.  Or not.  Maybe health care proves that Obama has a Middle East policy and maybe it means nothing.

So what can we believe?  The Rooster and Rozen stand firmly behind the theory that health care reform has made Obama a stronger president internationally, Walt isn’t convinced and Lynch doesn’t know yet.

While optimism is both healthy and contagious, it is easy to get carried away.  Though I don’t agree with everything that Walt said, he makes two very good points.  First, as I already mentioned, Obama’s focus is still going to be on domestic issues.  He is certainly not going to leave foreign policy on the shelf to rot, but he won’t take major risks either.  Secondly, people tend to look at politics in extremes (of course I am guilty).  Initially, Obama was a savior, then weak and a one-term president and now he back to indefatigable defender of right who will never fail.  Looking at the President in this light is dangerous and will lead to disappointment.

The passage of health care does not mean that Obama is going to go out and take on the Israeli lobby, fix Iran and bring justice to oppressed people around the world.  His policy to the Middle East will remain as it was last week.  International opposition from Israel and Iran will continue, human rights issues will still exist in Saudi Arabia and Iraq will still be a wreck.  Health care will not change this.

What it will change is the perception of the people.  If the American people see a stronger Obama, they are more likely to give him more leeway in foreign policy.  Though, like I said before, Obama’s focus will be on domestic issues.  Despite this, the passage of health care could give many the impression that he actually has a plan.  As Lynch begins to think that maybe Obama does know what he is doing, the  American people will start to perceive the same.

The new announcement of settlement construction on the eve of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting is pretty clear evidence that Israel does not view Obama as significantly different.  And, certainly, the idea that Obama will soon solve all the world’s problems is bound to lead to disappointment when in two weeks there is still unemployment, poverty and oppression around the world.  But, if people see the passage of health care reform as a sign of a strong president, Obama will get stronger.  For politicians, perception is an incredibly strong weapon.  While Obama is probably no stronger than he was two weeks ago, the perception that he is strong is now prevalent – and that is almost as good.

Photo from Stephen Walt

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3 thoughts on “How To Measure Obama Now

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