The autumn of Obama
Obama seems more decisive and more dangerous when his back is to the wall and he has nothing to lose.
LISBON - A cool, sunny Portuguese Saturday greets the attendees of the NATO summit, which is being held in an isolated, gated and heavily secured facility here. U.S. President Barack Obama, dozens of other heads of state, ministers and aides have made their way inside. The itinerary notes that at 3:45 P.M., the warm-up act, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, will take the podium to give a briefing. At 4:30 P.M., the main attraction takes center stage - Obama.
A familiar face catches my eye: CBS reporter Bill Plante and I traveled together from Washington to Pennsylvania in the spring of 1980. Jimmy Carter was president at the time. Not exactly popular, Carter still held an edge in the opinion polls. The Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, invited several reporters to accompany him to Philadelphia's Italian Market, featured as a bastion of support for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa. It was the equivalent of Tel Aviv's Carmel market or Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem, with a chilling addition of Reagan in a butcher shop filled with knives and slaughtered cattle on hooks.
The visit to the Italian Market sticks out in Plante's mind, coming as it did shortly after the botched attempt to rescue American hostages in the embassy in Tehran. Reagan would go on to win the presidency with the reporters who covered the campaign trail following him into the White House. Obama is the fifth president whom Plante has covered.
When Obama enters the briefing room, it is clear he sees himself (as does his audience ) as another link in a long chain that is the American presidency and the nation which he swore to defend, and not as some unique phenomenon. After Carter, there was Reagan, who in turn was succeeded by George H.W. Bush. Following him was Bill Clinton, who gave way to George W. Bush. The president traditionally enlists bipartisan support, trying to persuade the Senate to ratify a treaty with Russia that reduces nuclear arms. Now, it is Obama, until it is someone else's turn.
In Lisbon, Obama is just a first among equals, together with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and "my friend and partner" Dmitry Medvedev. The awkward embrace of the American-backed Russian reflects a ridiculous hope that the U.S. could help him overcome Vladimir Putin. These individuals deal with practical politics, not in philosophy, though among the leaders sits a Socrates - Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates.
Obama springs into the assembly hall with a bounce in his step that's more suited to school yard basketball but he is weighed down by an invisible anchor, the Republican majority in Congress. On the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, those present are fully aware of the serious threat facing American presidents. Obama's bodyguards face 730 reasons to be suspicious that maybe someone is insane, to be wary of people despite the suits, ties and foreign press credentials. Portuguese technicians, bureaucrats and bodyguards aside, there are dozens of delegations here.
In contrast to the hysteria of the Shin Bet, which places its bodyguards within a hair's length of the prime minister, the Secret Service detail stays 15 to 20 meters from the president, allowing for a clean photo-op. Despite the lessons learned from the shoe-throwing episode George W. Bush experienced in Iraq, Obama is closer to the journalists than he is to bodyguards.
This time, all of the journalists keep their shoes on. The names of six of them are read out by Obama from a note he takes out of his pocket, including White House correspondents, among them Plante, and a Portuguese reporter who extended hospitality to the most honored guest. The reporters ask Obama light questions with the topics ranging from Afghanistan and Russia to the balance of forces in Congress, to disgusted airline passengers unhappy over airport security pat-downs. The answers are indicative of to the extent which Obama has become a Mapainik. There is one hand, and there is the other hand. I want to do it this way, but I also understand it that way. He was elected as a prophet, yet rules as a priest. He is the chairman of the board of directors of America who functions as a chief executive officer that delves into the minutest, most mundane of details.
Plante likens him to "a university professor." Plante is a native of Chicago, which became Obama's adopted city and Obama became a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago.
Obama is in his autumn. The electrifying speaker has suffered a power outage. He repeated his earlier statement (this time to the Spanish daily "El Pais" ) that it is better to be a great one-term president than a mediocre two-term president. He turns his message into a briefing, while commenting that in 2014, it is likely he will still be president.
Will he have a spring? He doesn't know, much as Reagan did not know on that day in the butcher shop who would be served up for the slaughter and who would claim victory. But neither Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Benjamin Netanyahu should take solace. Obama seems more decisive and more dangerous when his back is to the wall and he has nothing to lose.