- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

President Obama is finding out, as former President George W. Bush did, that when it comes to governing, other people’s elections can be a troublesome business.

The tumultuous aftermath of Iran’s presidential election more than a week ago has complicated the president’s plans to engage Tehran in a quest for a “grand bargain” to stop the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

On Sunday, Iran’s government announced that five members of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s family have been arrested, suggesting a rift among Iran’s theocratic rulers, although state media later said they were released. The government also said at least 10 people were killed and 100 injured in clashes between demonstrators and police.

Domestically, Mr. Obama’s massive health care reform effort has run into roadblocks on Capitol Hill. The reason: Lawmakers are worried about voting for legislation that could get them tossed out of office in 2010.

Popular elections also tripped up Mr. Bush when Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that advocates the destruction of Israel and the death of all Jews, beat out the more moderate Fatah Party in 2006. Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip since then has undercut U.S. efforts to deal with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, who remains in control of the West Bank.

For the Obama administration, democracy’s spillover effect means its already overloaded agenda is now starting to burst at the seams.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs showed an awareness of the strain last week week when a reporter went down the list of items piling on top of one another on the domestic front: setbacks on health care reform, a Supreme Court nominee moving toward confirmation hearings and a proposal for the most sweeping financial-regulation changes since the Great Depression.

“North Korea, Iran,” Mr. Gibbs said, adding to the list.

“There’s always concern that the president - the president always has concerns that we have many problems and that we have to work quickly to deal with them, absolutely,” Mr. Gibbs said, but pointed to polling that showed confidence in Mr. Obama’s ability to handle the wide range of matters confronting him.

But the unpredictability of elections demonstrates that every commander in chief is forced to spend much of his time dealing with developments he had not expected.

“You don’t know what’s going to come when you’re president. You just have to be ready for it,” Mr. Bush said during a speech in Pennsylvania on Wednesday.

Iran is a good example. Most expectations were that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would coast to re-election June 12 and the Obama White House would then face the difficult task of negotiating with the volatile and defiant leader over his country’s nuclear program, with talks beginning as soon as possible.

After more than a week of street protests against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory by hundreds of thousands of Iranians who say he stole the election, the way forward for the United States is much less clear. Even if Mr. Ahmadinejad emerges with his power intact, his legitimacy will be badly hurt, making concessions less likely. And if opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi or some other figure is thrust into power, that likely moves back the timeline for talks.

Mr. Obama said in May, during meetings at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that talks with Tehran must yield progress by year’s end. Israel is anxious about Iran becoming a nuclear power, and the Jewish state could potentially launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it loses hope in talks being conducted by the United States and Europe.

Also on the foreign front, tensions with North Korea are high, following U.N. sanctions to penalize Pyongyang for testing a nuclear bomb in May and firing missiles over Japan. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates last week ordered missile interceptors and radar to Hawaii to defend against a possible attack by North Korea.

Domestically, the slowdown of the president’s health care reform agenda on Capitol Hill corresponds with new polling showing growing uncertainty among the American public about Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy and the federal budget.

The two developments are not unrelated.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are all too aware of the growing unrest - symbolized by the April “tea party” protests - about the rate of federal spending and debt, and the increasing attention being paid to the many possible implications of that spending, especially the effect on the strength of the dollar and on the government’s ability to finance the deficit through bonds.

The national debt stands at $11.4 trillion and the budget deficit for the current year is projected to hit almost $2 trillion.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that on health care, “the same challenges we saw under [President Bill] Clinton still exist.”

“There are … divisions among Democrats about what benefits are essential, tensions over taxes and finance, Republican opposition to any form of government intervention in the area,” he said.

The deficit, Mr. Zelizer said, has become “a way for opponents, and even cautious supporters, to really intensify the pressure on the administration.”

And among Democratic lawmakers who want to pass a health care bill, “for many [it is] very important” that the legislation not increase the deficit further, said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

The Democratic leadership is sensitive to the growing anxiety among its caucus over a bill that the Congressional Budget Office said last week would cost at least $1 trillion over 10 years, but insists it will find a way to pay for it.

“Democrats agree that it will be paid for. It is not in dispute,” said Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “The speaker has said that. The president has said that.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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