- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS:

L’AQUILA, Italy — Barack Obama is finding that the reach of a globally popular president goes only so far, leaving him to snatch partial victories as he can. For all his effort, his strategy also banks heavily on the commodity that helped get him elected: hope.

Mr. Obama came to a summit of world leaders last week as arguably the most popular politician there, not to mention the leader of the world’s chief superpower. But on the dominant issue of global warming, a new deal failed to win over developing countries, weakening its punch.

And earlier in Moscow, Mr. Obama got the promise of a pact with Russia to reduce nuclear arms and won help with the war in Afghanistan, but he left knowing that conflicts over missile defense and NATO remain unresolved.

Mr. Obama is in his element in these settings. It is his style - getting people together and talking, marking progress, emphasizing unity and victory, even if both are modest.

“While we don’t expect to solve this problem in one meeting or one summit, I believe we’ve made some important strides forward,” the president said about climate initiatives on Thursday.

The message is repeated by his aides. Every time reporters question why more did not get done, Mr. Obama’s advisers fire back: Look what we’ve done already.

As with the climate issue, in which poorer countries agreed that the rise of the planet’s temperature should be capped but balked at setting specific targets for doing that.

In L’Aquila, Mr. Obama was trying to build momentum on global warming by reminding world leaders that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed an energy bill committing the U.S. to serious reductions in greenhouse gases. As a result, said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, leaders of China, India and Brazil are going to have a hard time returning home and explaining why they “aren’t also willing to take those steps.”

Perhaps, but for now, those nations are resisting.

Emerging nations say the wealthy ones aren’t doing enough to limit heat-trapping gases in the short term. They also worry that major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could hamper their economies, which look enviously on those of the United States, Germany, Japan and other G-8 members.

The richest and fastest-growing countries did agree on one important goal: Global temperature should be kept from rising by more than 3.6 degrees, or 2 degrees Celsius, in a bid to avert rising sea levels and other calamities.

But it’s not clear whether Mr. Obama can budge China, India and other nations on more specific goals before a major climate-change conference in December in Copenhagen.

The president said there’s time to bridge the gaps.

Mr. Obama embarked on his latest foreign mission riding high popularity around the world. Gallup polls in many countries show the approval rating of U.S. leadership has increased substantially since he became president.

Yet in Russia, Mr. Obama met skepticism. Crowds weren’t wooed.

He said change won’t happen right away and won’t be easy - a line he uses all the time.

If you frame it that way, even a start is always good - and you always have hope.

“It’s difficult to forge a lasting partnership between former adversaries,” Mr. Obama said in Moscow. “It’s hard to change habits that have been ingrained.”

Mr. Obama’s agenda is so vast and fast that the White House itself is raising expectations - and then clamoring for perspective if progress is gradual.

“I dare you to think of a summit that was so substantive,” Mr. Obama’s Russia adviser Mike McFaul told reporters when in Moscow.

In L’Aquila, developing countries like China, Mexico and India blasted the big powers for growing protectionism after causing a financial mess. Those three countries, plus Brazil and South Africa, said poorer countries see global warming as an “inordinate burden resulting from a crisis they did not initiate.”

The limits to Mr. Obama’s influence here reflect hurdles on domestic issues back home.

The Democrat-controlled Congress has thwarted him on rather narrow matters, such as refusing to fund the closing of the U.S. prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or to curb farm subsidies. And now, even some of his signature issues are running into increasing resistance.

Democratic lawmakers are starting to splinter in the health care reform debate and jobless numbers are still rising, raising new questions about the effectiveness of his stimulus package.

Momentum on completing climate change legislation also is waning. Senate Democratic leaders Thursday pushed back deadlines for getting the bill ready for a floor vote, a sign that much more work needs to be done if the measure is to pass.

Meanwhile, Gallup’s daily tracking poll had Mr. Obama’s approval rating at the lowest point of his presidency last week, at 57 percent. Polling shows his popularity is still high for new presidents, even though he may be losing some support among self-described independents.

Mr. Obama keeps reminding everyone that his agenda will take time, even as he continues to hurry.

Less than six months into his presidency, he already has been through summits of the G-20, NATO, Western Hemisphere leaders, Russian leaders and now the G-8, plus other nations.

And that doesn’t count the ones he’s held at the White House on the nation’s financial health and on health care reform.

“It’s not that I’ve got summit-itis here,” he said in February.

One of the big White House announcements from the Italy summit was another summit, to be hosted by Mr. Obama in March in Washington, on nuclear security.

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