Obama’s nation – or abomination?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-23-10

A mentor of mine teaches that you always end up making three speeches – the one you plan to deliver, the one you actually deliver and the one you wish you’d delivered. Similarly, there are three presidencies – the one the candidate promises, the one that actually occurs and the one the president, partisans and historians argue about forever after. It will surprise many caught in the Israel bubble, that while Israelis have been obsessing about the Biden brouhaha, President Barack Obama was focused on pushing his health care legislation through Congress. With this historic health care bill, Obama fulfilled yet moved beyond the presidency he promised, defined his administration as liberal and secured his place in history.

Victory was costly. Obama broke the defining vow that launched him into the White House. He failed to become the post-partisan, red-and-blue together healer he hoped to be – and which Americans elected him to be. But he fulfilled his campaign promise to be a “transformational” leader. In 2008, he offended his rival Hillary Clinton by saying bluntly that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, that Bill Clinton did not,” and that Reagan “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”

Barack Obama has bet his political future on the assumption that America is ready for the change he just shoved through Congress. With his administration staffed by former Clintonites, Obama was determined not to replicate the Clinton health care debacle. Rather than dictating from the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, Obama let Congressional Democrats write the law. The downside is that Obama’s health care reform attracted no Republican votes in the House of Representatives.

This failure marks a dramatic fall from the bipartisan high of Election Night 2008 and deviates from the American standard for passing historic legislation. Franklin Roosevelt passed Social Security and Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare with bipartisan support. The upside is that Obama has a big win, despite having been counted out weeks ago, when the Republican unknown Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat Democrats assumed was theirs because the late Senator Ted Kennedy occupied it for so long.

Power is like a muscle – the more it is exercised, the more it grows. Obama’s victory will make him stronger, and will make America more Obama’s nation. Republicans fear that Obama’s nation is an abomination. Obama does not have enough time to prove them wrong regarding health care. Even he admits that this health care investment will take years to pay off. But Obama can win the health care debate, at least in the short term, if he applies the same determination he just demonstrated to his administration’s defining challenge – producing jobs for millions of unemployed Americans.

This week Americans learned what Israelis learned last week: Obama spent his years in Chicago wisely, mastering the political wards’ kill-or-be-killed ethos. No one could have risen so far, so fast, without a spine of steel beneath his Harvardian eloquence. And just as he blithely muscled past Republicans and bipartisan sensibilities on his way to Congressional victory, Obama brutally ambushed Bibi Netanyahu. Israel should not have walked right into Obama’s Chicagoland sucker punch, although Obama, shrewdly, had his associates administer the beating.

Unfortunately, the Middle East masses are less malleable and more violent than 535 American legislators. The Obama treatment proved incendiary, stirring Palestinian violence while calcifying Palestinian rejectionism. Obama must learn what another young president, John Kennedy, learned a few weeks into his presidency with the Bay of Pigs. Presidential action and inaction, presidential words and gestures, can kill. Especially in an area as volatile as the Middle East, given the history of Palestinian recalcitrance, and with the world piling on against Israel, exploiting a mistake to “condemn” Israel was counterproductive.

Many commentators are correct in wishing Obama would learn to be as tough on Iran and other American enemies as he is on America’s friends. Not only will George Mitchell now have to work even harder to lower the rhetorical temperature over Jerusalem, from all sides, but Obama risks looking like a substitute teacher punishing the timid A-student who whispered in class while failing to control the true troublemakers vandalizing the classroom.

The stress test Obama imposed on Israel highlighted many faults in Israel’s political culture, too. The foolish claim that Obama is an anti-Semite because he criticized Israel demeaned all Zionists – and undermined those of who fight against the real threat of anti-Semitism. Just as our enemies must be taught not to jump from every disagreement about Israeli policy to negating Israel itself, some Israelis must learn that not every disagreement is a call to destroy Israel, or anti-Semitic. No one should call anyone a bigot so casually, let alone the leader of Israel’s staunchest ally. It is untrue – and counterproductive. Just as we should condemn the hooligans who threatened to disrupt Rahm Emanuel’s son’s bar mitzvah when rumors suggested the Emanuel family was considering an Israeli venue, we should repudiate the verbal bullies who prefer to cast aspersions rather than debate policies.

Obama’s aggressiveness also imposed a stress test on American Jewry – and the jury is out regarding the results there. Obama’s team is calculating that if Jews could not bring themselves to vote for George W. Bush even when he stood up for Israel, few Jews will abandon Obama for pushing Israel around. American Jews remain more committed to liberalism than Zionism. No presidential election has ever been determined by a president’s Middle East record.

Yet foreign policy failures have doomed presidencies. As Obama rests on his laurels, as he pushes for more jobs, he should remember that his great threat comes not from Bibi Netanyahu but from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To be another American president who watched Jewish neighborhoods be built in areas of Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s historic capital, that were previously uninhabited is no great shame. To be the first American president who watched Iran go nuclear – could be disastrous.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow  in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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