Column One: The perils of presidential failure

The political winds in America are blowing against Obama. Israel should do nothing to smooth his path forward.

US President Barack Obama. (photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama.
(photo credit: AP)
USPresident Barack Obama is feeling the heat. His response to the currentcrisis threatening to sink his one-year-old presidency is telling forwhat it says about the future of both his domestic and foreignpolicies. Israel should take heed of his responses.
Obama'sDemocratic Party, and indeed the US political establishment as a whole,received a jolt on Tuesday when Republican Scott Brown won theMassachusetts seat in the US Senate that had been held by theDemocratic Kennedy dynasty since 1952. The question now on everyone'slips is whether Brown's stunning victory will cause Obama to change hiscourse and moderate his policies.
The Massachusetts Senate race was a real world example of whatopinion polling data has shown. Since last summer, a consistentlygrowing number of US voters oppose Obama's policies.
Brown's victory was nationally significant because it removedthe Democrats' filibuster proof, 60-man super-majority in the Senate.With Brown as the 41st Republican senator, the minority party can nowmuster the votes to block legislation from being called to a votebefore the full Senate and so prevent laws from being passed.
In addition to its immediate legislativesignificance, the larger political importance of the Massachusettselection rests in what it signals for House and Senate Democrats whowill face reelection in November. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers arereportedly now veering into full-blown panics about their prospects inthose elections. As Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh put it, "If you loseMassachusetts and that's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of wakingup."
Tellingly, Obama and his White House advisers are refusing to"wake up." Obama responded to Brown's win as he has to many of hissetbacks since assuming office a year ago this week. He blamed hispredecessor, George W. Bush.
Inan interview on Wednesday with ABC News, Obama said, "People are angry,they are frustrated. Not just because of what's happened in the lastyear or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years."Obama argued that the growing unpopularity of his programs is due notto substance, but to style. As he put it, "We were so busy just gettingstuff done... that I think we lost some of that sense of speakingdirectly to the American people about what their core values are andwhy we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with thosevalues."
Even as Democratic lawmakers are openly expressing misgivingswith moving forward in implementing Obama's radical plan to reform theUS health care industry, Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod told themedia that abandoning the initiative is "not an option."
Rather than accept that Massachusetts voters elected Brownbecause Brown repudiated Obama's agenda - on both domestic and foreignpolicy - the Obama White House has argued that Brown's victory wassimply the consequence of poor electioneering by the Democraticcandidate and poor planning by the national Democratic Party apparatus.
Obama's imperiousness is even more apparent when compared tothe behavior of his predecessors in office. When in 2006 theRepublicans lost control of Congress, George W. Bush responded byembracing the Democrats' policies on everything from Iran to mortgagebanks. When the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, BillClinton adopted the Republicans' "Contract with America" as his own.
What Obama's refusal to hear Tuesday's "wake-up call" fromMassachusetts shows is that his chief concern is not listening to whatthe public says. It is not even remaining in office. Rather, hisbehavior in the wake of the Brown victory shows that Obama's topconcern is enacting his radical political agenda. He is an ideologuefirst and a party leader second.
While his fellow Democrats in Congress say that Brown'selection means that Obama's plan to nationalize one-sixth of the USeconomy through his health care plan is dead in the water, Obama claimsthe time to move forward is now. As he sees things, he has 11 monthsleft to effect the radical change he seeks for America. Obama believesthat plowing ahead is the only thing that will save the Democrats. Ashe has put it, "I... know what happens once we get... [health carereform] done. The American people will suddenly learn that this billdoes things they like."
Far from slowing down, he will redouble his efforts to ram his agenda down the throats of an unwilling populace.
ELECTIONS ARE blunt instruments, not precise readings. Voterscast their ballots for specific politicians and their political partiesbased on their wide perceptions of general trends rather than onspecific policies related to specific issues. Candidates in turnemphasize specific issues because of what those issues symbolize aboutthe general state of affairs.
In the US today, there is a widespread publicperception that Obama and his party colleagues in the House and Senatehave gone on a spending spree when what the deepening economicrecession requires is frugality. Obama's plan to spend up to a trilliondollars on nationalized health care in this economic environment isemblematic of the public sense that the national leadership is behavingirresponsibly.
A similar view pervades with respect to Obama's foreign policy.
Speaking to National Review, Brown's chief politicalstrategist Eric Fehrnstrom said that "terrorism and the treatment ofenemy combatants" was a "more potent issue" for Massachusetts votersthan health care. If health care is emblematic of the growingperception that Obama and his fellow Democrats are irresponsible on thedomestic policy front, so "terrorism and the treatment of enemycombatants" are emblematic of the public perception that Obama'sforeign policy is too weak.
The administration's failure to detect, prevent or adequatelycharacterize the jihadist massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, like itsfailure to detect, prevent or adequately handle the aftermath of theattempted airline bombing on Christmas day by a Nigerian jihadist, areviewed by Americans as proof that Obama's foreign policy is weak anddangerous.
As with his domestic agenda, in foreign affairsas well, the clear antidote to Obama's political woes would be tochange course and moderate his policies. Were Obama interested inensuring that the public supported and trusted his handling of Americanforeign policy, he would repudiate his plan to transfer terrorists nowjailed at Guantanamo Bay to Yemen and cancel his plan to try seniorterrorists like September 11 architect Khaled Sheikh Muhammad incivilian trials.
Butrather than do so, Obama has responded to the public's opposition tohis foreign policies by doubling down. In the face of massive criticismover his administration's decision to try the September 11 mastermindin a civilian courtroom in New York, the administration opted to treatthe Christmas bomber as a criminal defendant as well. Indeed, as itstop counterterror officials made clear in Senate testimony onWednesday, the administration never considered treating the terroristas an illegal enemy combatant.
In a related matter, on Wednesday the StateDepartment announced that the US has dropped its opposition topermitting Islamist leader Tariq Ramadan from entering the US. Ramadan- whose grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood which spawned thelikes of al-Qaida and Hamas - is a hero of the far Left in the US andEurope. He was barred from entering the US since 2004 due in part tohis personal contributions to Hamas.
In short then, rather than respond to the public's rejection ofhis posture of weakness abroad by replacing that posture with one ofstrength, Obama has ratcheted up his policy of weakness. What thisshows is that like his domestic agenda, Obama's foreign policy -including his national security policy - is the product of his firmlyheld beliefs and ideological commitments. Obama is weak on foreignaffairs because he chooses to be weak. Through both his actions and hiswords he demonstrates his belief that the US must adopt a posture ofcontrition to make up for its past global leadership. His goal is toweaken America's position in the international arena, because hedoesn't believe that America has a moral right to be stronger thananyone else.
Given the congressional backlash to the Massachusetts election,it is possible that Obama will be compelled to put aside his domesticinitiatives, or at least to repackage them. US presidents have only alimited capacity to unilaterally implement massive changes on thedomestic front. Congressional support is required for most majorendeavors. Today, it seems likely that many Democratic lawmakers willrefuse to fall on their swords for Obama. So his health careinitiative, like his environmental and immigration agendas, may well beburied in committee.
On the other hand, the US Constitution gives thepresident a much freer hand in foreign affairs. And here we are likelyto see a full-court presidential press to force through his radicalagenda on everything from nuclear weapons to counterterrorism toappeasement of the Islamic world. Given the prominence Obama hasalready given to his anti-Israel posture, it can be assumed that Israelwill be the focus of even more intense pressure from the White House inthe months and years to come.
Allof this should concentrate the minds of Israel's leaders. They shouldassume that Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell will intensifyhis pressure - and escalate his threats - on Israel to make massiveconcessions to the Palestinians. Indeed, given Mitchell's trip thisweek to Lebanon and Syria and Obama's refusal to end his appeasementovertures towards Iran, Israel should expect the US to expand itspressure on Israel to agree to imperil itself on all fronts.
SINCE TAKING office on March 31, the Netanyahu government hasadopted two distinct policies for dealing with Obama. Until September,the government's policy was to politely delay as long as possible itsultimate polite refusal to accept US demands for more concessions toPalestinians.
After Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's meeting with Obama atthe UN in September, however, he adopted a new policy of caving in toUS pressure. First he reiterated his support for Palestinian statehood.Then he agreed to bar Jews from receiving construction permits in Judeaand Samaria. Apparently, Netanyahu was led to believe that hisconcessions would cause Obama to ease his pressure on Israel.
But as the White House's escalating threats and demands for newIsraeli concessions in the wake of Netanyahu's change of coursedemonstrates, Israel's policy shift was counterproductive. And givenObama's current political trajectory, Israel will be best served by areturn to the government's initial policy. Rather than seeking toplacate Obama, Israel should try to wait him out. And at the same time,the government should robustly advance Israel's national interests,both by unapologetically defending those interests in the diplomaticarena, and more importantly by adopting policies and taking action tosecure and strengthen the country.
The political winds in America are blowing against Obama. Evenwith his relatively free hand in foreign affairs, the ill winds willnecessarily slow him down. Israel should do nothing to smooth his pathforward.
caroline@carolineglick.com