Obama’s charm offensive
The White House has downplayed any policy initiatives and described Obama's visit as essentially a listening tour.
A MAN in Ramallah walks past signs depicting US President Barack Obama, March 12 Photo: Ammar Awad/Reuters
WASHINGTON – During US President Barack Obama’s first term in office, even
Democratic members of Congress would complain of their difficulty in securing
face time with the president – at times even when they wanted to discuss shared
But a funny thing happened in the wake of the so-called
“sequester,” or massive across-the-board spending cuts that Democrats and
Republicans agreed in 2011 to impose, despite concurring that they were
arbitrary and unwise, and which could have been staved off by mutual agreement
before their implementation started on March 1 Obama had warned of
sequestration’s dire consequences, but, instead of sitting down with GOP leaders
to hash out a deal, he went on a nationwide tour to highlight the coming perils;
the result was that the cuts went into effect and the American public were
skeptical of his efforts to stop them.
Now media reports in Washington
are filled with details of the “charm offensive” Obama has undertaken to reach
out personally to his political adversaries, including what members of Congress
ate when they broke bread with the president last week at a swank hotel and who
it was that picked up the bill (Obama).
Republicans have welcomed the
outreach, though they and the White House play down the likelihood that it will
succeed in changing minds. But both sides believe it is worth doing because,
aside from the PR payoff in showing that politicians are striving for the
bipartisanship Americans say they want, it can only help move things in the
right direction when people get to know each other, discover similar interests
and develop a rapport.
This would seem to be a lesson in DC politics far
removed from the realm of foreign policy. But Vice President Joe Biden drew an
important connection between these two spheres in his address to the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee conference three days after the sequester
He referenced the well-known quote, frequently cited by both
parties, from former Democratic speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, that all
politics is local.
“With all due respect,” Biden continued, “I think all
politics is personal.”
He repeated, “All politics is personal.
it’s building personal relationships and trust and exposure, talking to people,
that really matters – particularly in foreign policy.”
It might have
taken Biden four years to convince the president of that, but it is clear that
the new White House charm is indeed not only aimed at domestic
Obama’s trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this week seems
to be shaped by the same strategy.
Every time White House officials have
talked about the president’s upcoming trip to the Middle East, they have
downplayed any specific policy initiatives and described it as essentially a
On Monday, for instance, following Obama’s preparatory
meeting with Arab-American leaders, an official was quoted by JTA making this
“The president noted that the trip is not dedicated to resolving a
specific policy issue, but is rather a chance to consult with Jordanian, Israeli
and Palestinian Authority officials about a broad range of issues,” he
Obama has also indicated that he wants to reach out directly to the
Israeli people, opting to speak to university students at the Jerusalem
International Convention Center rather than to politicians in the
While listening tours are usually conducted at the beginning of
one’s time in office, Obama learned the hard way during his first four years of
clashes and frustration with Israelis and Palestinians that it might be helpful
to build strong relationships with leaders before testing them with freighted
It remains to be seen whether he will succeed in playing
catch-up now, just as the verdict is still out on how his efforts to court
Republicans will pan out.
But as no less than Rep. John Boehner, the Ohio
Republican who currently holds the speaker’s gavel, wrote in The Washington Post
on Thursday, “Outreach is always positive.”