Obama’s charm offensive

The White House has downplayed any policy initiatives and described Obama's visit as essentially a listening tour.

Obama poster in Ramallah 370  (photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
Obama poster in Ramallah 370
(photo credit: 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 priorities.
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 began.
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.
And 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 parties.
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 listening tour.
On Monday, for instance, following Obama’s preparatory meeting with Arab-American leaders, an official was quoted by JTA making this point.
“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 said.
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 Knesset.
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 demands.
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.”