By YOAV TENEMBAUM
President Barak Obama has diluted the authority of the presidency like no other United States president has in living memory.
He has appeared more frequently in television interviews, so far, than any other president. There is hardly a political initiative of his administration in which he is not publicly and openly involved right from the start.
To paraphrase a predecessor of his President Woodrow Wilson, who believed in open international agreements openly arrived at, President Obama seems to be on the same course. He announces the policy concerned and then goes on to implement it almost as a solo show. This kind of political behavior not only dilutes his authority as president, but also limits his freedom to maneuver. He is constrained by his own statements.
For instance, Obama previously announced that Israel must declare a total freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was ready to go a long way toward achieving a common denominator on this matter, a total freeze was not going to happen.
Had the Obama administration refrained from making public statements on this issue, and proceeded to conduct a quiet dialogue with the Israeli government, the current Israeli position could hardly have been presented as an American failure.
INDEED, BY making his position publicly known, President Obama forced Mahmoud Abbas to adopt an identical stance thus rendering a move on the peace process even more difficult. The Palestinian Authority leadership negotiated with previous Israeli governments without demanding a freeze on Israeli settlements as a precondition. Once Obama declared in public that such a freeze was necessary to restart negotiations, he left Abbas no other alternative but to adopt the same position. After all, Abbas couldn't be less demanding than Israel's staunch ally was.
Further, the contrived tripartite meeting involving Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama in New York last month was hardly conducive to the domestic and international authority of the US president. If at all, this meeting should have been convened by a lower-ranking political figure, such as the Secretary of State or the officially appointed mediator, Senator George Mitchell. . There was precious little to be gained by the president from such a meeting.
On every issue, Obama personalizes the policy he wishes to adopt right from the get-go.
To be sure, a presidential political system tends to personalize the policies pursued by the executive branch more so than a cabinet-parliamentary system. But in the case of Obama, there is a sense that the policies seem to revolve around him not only at a conceptual level, but also at a political level right from the outset of the decision-making process.
Obama has become the White House spokesman. He appears on a daily basis to explain his policies on almost every channel, on almost every program. It is said that he is a great speaker. Indeed, he is. But the value of a singular speech or an extraordinary interview resides in its being selectively made.
A president has to preserve his or her authority in order to be effective. The president has to discriminate as to where he appears, who he talks to, and in which stage of a political process he intervenes.
SO FAR, Obama has done the exact opposite. This has led to a process of increasing "political inflation," as the value of the president and of his office has diminished. Indeed, if there were an officially endorsed level of political inflation, as there is in the economic realm, the United States presidency might be said to be in the midst of a hyper-inflationary process. This process is reversible. It is up to President Obama to decide if he wishes to be remembered as an able and charismatic White House spokesman or as an effective and persuasive president. To be sure, the latest decision by the Nobel Committee to award Obama the Nobel Peace Prize may have, paradoxically, reinforced this process.
The surprise and bewilderment which this decision has caused both in the United States and in other countries, and not only among Obama's political rivals, has done precious little to enhance his authority.
Usually, the decision to award the prize helps to elevate the status of the person being bestowed with it. In this particular case, due to the many question raised in light of his brief tenure and his lack of any concrete achievement thus far, many people may construe the decision as a forced exercise deserving scant respect. The decision is peculiar not for being objectionable, but for being incoherent. This could hardly help enhance Obama's presidential authority.
The writer is a lecturer in the Diplomacy Program at Tel Aviv University. He holds a doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University.
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