- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009


For months, the image of President Obama as weak had gained currency, as his drive toward health care reform looked increasingly troubled and his attempts to gain concessions from foreign allies and competitors appeared to be going nowhere.

But Mr. Obama’s disclosure Friday that Iran had a secret nuclear facility and that he had known about it since taking office introduced a new way of looking at many of his decisions since January.

“You have to go back and look at the nine months and all the moves he’s made since then, and that he knew Iran was lying to him, and he still went ahead with it,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington advocacy group devoted to eliminating nuclear weapons from the world.

“He played Iran perfectly, to isolate Iran, unite all the other countries around him, with an open hand to Iran, and then he springs the trap.”

Not only did the president look strong, he looked cunning.

Now, a question for the White House is whether it can capitalize on this moment and direct this sense of momentum toward its domestic agenda, namely health care reform.

The president’s top advisers, after returning to Washington from the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh, acknowledged that Mr. Obama had cut a compelling figure during a week of maneuvering to hem in Iran’s nuclear program.

“The president played a strong and effective leadership role this week on the world stage, and I think Americans appreciate that,” said David Axelrod, one of the president’s closest advisers.

But he would not say whether he thought there might be a ricochet effect on to health care.

The most recent polling continues to show high degrees of skepticism among the public, while the Senate Finance Committee has struggled to pass a version of reform that many are looking to as the model for a bipartisan bill.

Faiz Shakir, director of research at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, said the president’s good week may help him domestically “if it translates into higher poll numbers.”

“But I’m skeptical,” he said. “The domestic stuff is much more about Congress right now.”

On Capitol Hill, liberal Democrats continued to insist that a government-run “public option” will be part of a final bill, despite the fact that most observers do not think the bill has a chance of passing with such a component. The absence of the public option, however, might imperil support from voting blocs on the left.

That is just one of the conundrums that still face health care reform.

Tony Fratto, a deputy assistant to the president in the George W. Bush administration, said he has “seen nothing that will make it easier for [Mr. Obama] to pass health care or a climate bill.”

“In fact, I’d say he lost a week,” Mr. Fratto said. “While he was talking to U.N.-types and holding a sleepy G-20, Republicans were out talking about health care.”

Of course, all of Mr. Obama’s problems on foreign policy are far from solved. The Iran issue, all by itself, remains an enormous challenge, with one government official describing the current moment as comparable to the first inning of a nine-inning baseball game.

The administration must now wait to see how Iran conducts itself at talks scheduled to begin Oct. 1, and then react accordingly.

Then there is Afghanistan, where the president appears to be considering rejecting a request from his newly installed commander on the ground, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for more troops.

And though Mr. Obama held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York, bringing the two sides together for the first time in almost a year, his obvious impatience with the two sides at the meeting was evidence of the current state of peace talks.

The Palestinians remain divided between Fatah and Hamas, and the Israelis remain unwilling to agree to a full freeze on the expansion of settlements for a year. However, after The Washington Times reported last week that the Israelis have proposed a freeze on new settlements for six to nine months, Mr. Obama told the Palestinians that this was “enough to get started” with peace talks, which are currently stalled.

The biggest impact of the Iran secret-site announcement may be that in the future, when critics level the boom on the president for a decision they don’t like, they might hesitate for fear that, like the past week, he might have an ace up his sleeve.

• Jon Ward can be reached at jward@washingtontimes.com.

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