President Obama is packing on political muscle, with the latest example being his surprise trip to Afghanistan. There, he delivered a pointed message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to rein in corruption and improve on good governance.
It was not long ago that Mr. Obama was seen as weak, both at home and abroad. He was criticized for handing healthcare over to Congress and not leading. He was chastised for caving in to Russia on a missile defense shield, for reaching out to Iran with kid gloves, for letting Israel roll over him with settlements, for wimping out on greenhouse gases.
The criticisms have come from all sides, depending on the issue. And there have been exceptions to this weakness complaint, most notably his troop surge in Afghanistan. But in the last few weeks, he has noticeably stiffened his backbone.
No matter what one thinks about healthcare reform, the president stood firm and used his powers of persuasion – and his office – to pass the most significant change to medical care for Americans in decades. After that, an emboldened Obama announced 15 recess appointments to fill openings in his administration, bypassing the Senate and further angering Republicans. He justified it on grounds of GOP obstruction.
In foreign affairs, Obama told his Russian counterpart he was ready to walk away from a nuclear arms reduction treaty rather than give in to Moscow’s demands for concessions. That tough stance saved the START treaty, and the president was able to announce a nuclear weapons deal March 26.
In recent weeks, the president has shown resolve over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and he’s working on a new round of international sanctions to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.
The toughness shows Obama maturing in his presidency, balancing deliberation with decisiveness. But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.
Getting the balance right is awfully hard. Too much deliberation can turn a president into a manager, like Jimmy Carter. Too much bold and decisive can lead to erroneous conclusions such as President George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” in the Iraq war.
At home, the White House has on its agenda the regulation of the financial industry, changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, campaign-finance changes, and job creation. The latter must be the president’s No. 1 domestic priority.
Obama’s tough stand on healthcare could strengthen his hand, but he should not stop reaching out to Republicans, even if they profess, as Sen. John McCain did, that “there will be no cooperation for the rest of the year.”
Overarching this agenda, though, must be the job of getting the nation’s finances in order. For this, the president will need to exercise toughness and leadership, because neither side will likely be interested in making the sacrifices required to tame the deficit.
Abroad, Obama’s newly shown resolve may help move the United States and Russia further along the path to a “reset” in relations. His combination of flexibility on the anti-Iranian missile shield but stiffness on the arms treaty shows sensitivity to Russian insecurities and also firmness in the face of an assertive Russia.
Likewise, Obama will have to maintain evenhandedness in the Middle East, which includes a necessary firmness with Israel. It’s hard to see how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, with its hard-right elements, will reach a peace deal with the Palestinians without considerable pressure from Washington.
Such pressure can also reinforce America as an “honest broker” in the peace process – with positive ripple effects in the region.
March has turned out to be a surprising month for Obama, the professor president. He’s gained needed political clout. Will he use it wisely?