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A New Learning Curve? Only Partially
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A New Learning Curve? Only Partially

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

President Obama seems still to have some trouble understanding how Presidents are supposed to cut deals; at least on domestic issues. His negotiating approach with Republicans on the fiscal cliff is all too reminiscent of the approach he used on healthcare. Like he did during his first months in office, the President is not presenting a truly clear proposal to the Republicans or to the country as to specifically where he wants the deliberations to go, beyond generalities and continuing the tax cuts for 98% of taxpayers.

While this all may be posturing and jockeying and Obama may well be ready to present his ideas in a few days, perhaps even in a televised address, there is a style of conducting negotiations here that is not adequately assertive or forceful.  Considering the serious financial implications of a renewed recession, one might have expected that Obama would have adopted a much more serious, substantive stance and not waited–like he did with the healthcare debate–for Congress to act or in this case for the Republicans to move.

Similarly, it would seem that the urgency of the approaching Christmas holidays is not sufficient pressure on his or Speaker Boehner’s negotiators. There is a need to add more drama to the talks. For example, locking the door as President Kennedy did to the steel negotiators in 1962 or secluding the teams away for the weekend in Camp David.  Less press and more bargaining might produce an actual result which could be cleaner and reasonable. All parties would need to meet the public together with a done deal. This assumes, of course, that an agreement can be reached.

In a totally different set of deliberations the White House has so many balls in the air in the Middle East at the moment it does not know at which ones to swat first.  Between Syria, Egypt, the Palestinians, Iran, and Israel there is no rest for the diplomatic team in the White House or at Foggy Bottom. This makes the announcement of the new Israeli policy on settlements so frustrating and annoying for the administration. One might expect a devil may care attitude from some quarters but not from your friends. That Bibi needed to thrust this new move into the face of the Obama Administration, having just successfully passed through an exceedingly cooperative period in the Hamas-Gaza War, makes no sense. It is clear, however, that the Obama team is totally focused on the rest of the region at the moment. Netanyahu seems to be getting away with a mere slap on the wrist from the U.S.—at least so far.

In this situation the President is not trying to rankle the public or segments of the Jewish community. He actually is probably holding his fire for his next four-eyes talk with Bibi, after the Israeli elections. Obama has more than enough to deal with now and the Europeans are raising the heat on the Israelis so that the U.S. can wait. 

Unlike Bibi, at least in the diplomatic sphere, Obama is demonstrating both finesse and patience. He is also hoping that the Security Council will not bring the settlement issue to a vote, in which case the U.S. will be very hard pressed to support this Israel.  The only way probably that Israel could expect a U.S. veto would be if a resolution’s language were grossly unbalanced.  Otherwise Obama can be expected to force the Israelis to hear his Administration also condemn at length their entire approach to settlement construction.

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