A victory for Harry S Obama
WASHINGTON -- President Obama scored an historic victory by making health care accessible to almost all Americans. Of course, this victory came at a price. The president was not able to win over a single Republican. Nobody who has witnessed the fierce debate in Congress, the comparisons with Hitler and Stalin, and the tumultuous protests of tea party militants, could deny that America is a deeply divided country. Obama's bipartisan approach has failed. But now his tireless efforts to keep his most important campaign pledge might have beneficial effects even for his foreign policy.
With winning the health care battle as his top priority, the President even cancelled his trip to the EU-U.S. Summit as well as a trip to Asia (including Indonesia, his childhood home). He has risked almost everything -- and won a lot. He may still disappoint the expectations of many, but those who doubted that Obama couldn't pick a fight were proven wrong. It now remains to be seen whether he is capable of doing the same for his foreign policy agenda. After Obama was sworn in as president, he initiated a full-scale revision of American foreign policy. He committed himself to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, spoke to the Iranian people at Newroz, addressed the Arab world at his historic Cairo speech, and completely overhauled U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan -- all in less than one year. But, so far, the results have been underwhelming.
While it is true that his policies did a great deal for America's reputation and legitimacy in eyes of the world, he fell short on achieving concrete results. The Iranians rejected his outstretched hand, and despite Obama's two-day trip to Moscow, U.S.-Russian relations remain tense. During her visit to Russia, Hillary Clinton was caught unawares by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's announcement that a Russian-built nuclear plant in Iran will be up and running soon. Putin's statement came while the U.S. is pressing for UN sanctions against Tehran and during negotiations about a strategic arms reduction treaty that were repeatedly delayed by Moscow's insistence on linking START and missile defense. So will the president's health care victory put foreign policy on the Obama Administration's front burner? Certainly not. The economic crisis, immigration reform, and (hopefully) climate change will leave little space for foreign affairs on the president's agenda. And even if a deal on arms reduction with the Russians could (finally) be cut, the ratification process will be time-consuming because of resistance in the Senate. Nonetheless, one great question remains: what happens when Obama's outstretched hand is rejected on foreign policy issues? Was his policy of outreach a symptom of weakness (as many critics charge), or was he just badly misread by Vladimir Putin -- in the same way that Republican House minority leader John Boehner misread Obama on health care. Certainly, it was not just Americans who saw their president in a new light this week, and a new style of leadership. There's no reason to worry: it seems likely that consensus will remain the preferred mode of operation for this U.S. president and his administration.
But the message from this week's health care drama is one that should be clearly understood abroad: If negotiations fail, a decision will be made. Another lesson after almost a year of intense struggle: don't underestimate the strategic patience of this president. A few days before the vote, Republican minority whip Eric Cantor added to the Famous Last Words file by declaring that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would not have the necessary votes for the health care bill. Remember the picture of President Harry Truman after his surprise electoral victory in 1948, holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the front headline blaring "Dewey defeats Truman!"? On Sunday, Obama followed in Truman's footsteps both as a social reformer and as a surprise winner of a fight even his friends had not dared to hope he'd win.
Niels Annen is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington. Editor's note: Corrected to reflect date of Truman's victory.
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