A lost message
The moment Barack Obama's sharp image became blurred, he started losing ground among his public. But if he can regain his voice and resolve, he - and Israel's prime minister - might yet be able to reshape the Middle East.
Barack Obama failed because he didn't preserve his political brand name. The more politicians define their identities, the more likely they are to succeed over time. The more they blur their essence, the more likely they are to lose votes and sectors of the market.
Obama's sweeping success in the race for the White House was due to the stunning image he created as a revolutionary who would save floundering America. A black outsider with a Third World background, a gifted orator who came out of nowhere and realized the American dream, a young senator unsullied by the petty politics of Washington, a family man with a charming spouse - this was a complex person who delivered a simple, catchy and clear message to everyone: "Change."
But from the moment he took power, Obama began more and more to resemble some of the politicians he passed on the way up. Maybe he became enamored of the trappings of power, or maybe he was disappointed to discover that reality would make it hard for him to uphold promises, like closing the Guantanamo detention facility and ending the "clash of civilizations" between America and the Muslim world. His health care reform got through Congress, but only after becoming a bureaucratic epic involving numerous sub-clauses and stipulations. Obama lost his message and hasn't found a new one.
The result was that definition of the Obama trade name fell into the hands of his adversaries from the Tea Party movement, who portrayed him as a monster - a doubting American, a Muslim in disguise, a radical communist seeking to undermine the social order and destroy America's moral fiber, who wants to take from us and give to "them." The racist cast of the campaign against Obama, which was hidden beneath a veneer of political correctness, strengthened the message of the opposition: We are fighting to save our home from a foreign interloper.
The demonstrative outsider quality that worked in his favor in the presidential elections became a weapon in the hands of his foes. Obama did not posit a counter-message, only entrenched himself in self-persuasion that his policy is the right one and that people don't understand it. Even in his capitulation speech on Wednesday, in which he took responsibility for the Democrats' defeat in the House, he insisted that his way is the right one and that the economy is to blame.
The political arena quickly discerned the disparity between the fiery candidate and the disappointing president. The results of the Daily Presidential Tracking Poll, published by the Rasmussen Reports site, looked like a picture of a playground slide, plunging sharply into the ground.
In the past eight months, Obama has succeeded in braking his drop in popularity, but remains stuck with a rating of less than 50 percent of the public supporting him. By contrast, the proportion of people who say they strongly disapprove of him is about 16 percent higher.
Fallout at home
Economic theory holds that a company's shares will fall even before its financial reports are published. That helps explain Obama's weakness in the Middle East. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who until a few weeks ago were fearful of whatever the American president might say, became less awed by him as soon as they grasped the extent of the defeat his party was going to suffer in the midterm elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend the construction freeze in the settlements, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas halted the peace talks. Both reverted to their opening positions, which they had earlier scrapped under Obama's pressure.
Netanyahu is going to America tomorrow night in order to reassess his position vis-a-vis the administration. There is nothing he likes more than maneuvering in American politics and confronting contrarian Congressional gridlock, in the face of a vulnerable administration. Obama, who is heading to Asia to console himself, will not meet with the prime minister, but when he returns, he will have to decide where to go from here.
Foreign policy has always been the refuge of American presidents who were drubbed in midterms. Defense Minister Ehud Barak believes that Obama will work with all his might for the establishment of a Palestinian state next summer. According to this approach, the president will push on to create Palestine and ignore the political fallout at home.
The best news Netanyahu read this week appeared in a piece by David Broder, the senior political commentator in America, in Sunday's Washington Post. If the recession continues, Obama will not get reelected, wrote Broder, who has covered every election campaign in the past 50 years. But the president has only negligible influence on the business cycle. How can he nevertheless do something? "The answer is obvious, but its implications are frightening. War and peace influence the economy," Broder wrote.
Obama has to strive to provoke a confrontation with Iran, Broder added. The Republican House and the public will back him, and preparations for war will reignite the American economy. "If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history," Broder concluded. That is exactly what Netanyahu told Obama in their first meeting: "History will judge you by your success in containing the Iranian threat."
Broder is the voice of the American center, which supported Obama and still believes in his ability to get back on track. If the president listens to him, the conditions will be created for a historic deal with Israel: elimination of the Iranian threat in return for Palestinian independence and dismantlement of the settlements in the West Bank. In other words: You give me Itamar, I will give you Natanz.
Obama and Netanyahu are great campaigners when in the opposition, but their political trade names became blurred when they came into power. They will be tested in their ability to overcome character weaknesses, old baggage and past disputes, in order to create a blueprint that will reshape the Middle East. If they succeed, they will leave a legacy - and win the next elections.