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A welcome respite for two world leaders
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A welcome respite for two world leaders

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

Seems like Hanukka and Thanksgiving came along at the right time for President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Their respective administrations — independently and together — both needed a respite, even if it was only a brief one. To be sure, matters are and will be heating up dramatically before exhausted leaders head out for more extended winter breaks. The matters facing both leaders, in each case, are substantive and political.

Obama must rebuild his base in the United States, even among his partisan admirers. With his approval ratings having plummeted to the 40 percent range, the president’s capacity to lead the nation over the next three years is as challenged as that of any president in history. The issue is not the polling numbers themselves; it is trying to restore national confidence in him personally.

It was not only that the Affordable Health Care web site was not operative on schedule, but that the president first denied or at least avoided a full acknowledgement of its failures. Quickly he was embarrassed into publically conceding the failed launch, and then had to account for the broken promise that no citizens would lose their current insurance coverage if they preferred it to what else was being offered. Obama ate crow, admitting his mistakes, but not before he appeared to try to wiggle out of the fix that his own team had created.

Up to this point, and despite the president’s limited record of legislative successes, Obama had been generally well trusted. While six of 10 Americans saw the president as honest in September 2012, the latest CBS News/New York Times poll shows that fewer than half of Americans said they felt Obama is “honest and trustworthy.” Now he is in a total recovery mode, trying to shore up dismal approval ratings, with limited resources and declining good will.

Even if one ignores the partisan hostility and the normal inter-party rivalries, Obama is in a fight not only for his historical legacy, but also for his very ability to govern. New or pending legislative agenda items will not only be scrutinized in the future for their vision, necessity, and coherence, but also for whether the American people have confidence in their author’s truthfulness and realism.

Americans want their government to address immigration reform, gun control, Social Security rebalancing, and an entire array of budgetary/fiscal issues. But to get there, they will need a leader they can trust.

The president’s State of the Union Address next January, in fact, may well be the most important speech of his entire presidency. Will he be able to restore the trust that he lost?

Across the world, Netanyahu also needs to consider his own and his country’s future. Specifically, he needs to address the confrontation between Israel, the United States, and the other Western allies over Iran. He vigorously disagreed with the P5+1 decision to pursue an interim agreement with Iran, and did so in a way that unnecessarily damaged his country’s relationship with its most important ally. The prime minister’s behavior during the weeks leading up to the Geneva agreement — during which time he behaved more like a petulant child than a world leader — has done serious damage to a relationship with the current administration that had dramatically improved since the president’s visit to Israel in March. While it is unlikely to have an effect on the U.S. military or intelligence agencies’ cooperative relationships with Israel, Netanyahu will need to undo the damage — for domestic political purposes, if nothing else.

That’s not to say that Israel’s view of the interim agreement is illegitimate. The sanctions played a critical role in forcing even the appearance of Iranian moderation, and Israel has legitimate concerns that easing these even somewhat lets Iran off the hook. But the fact that Israel disagreed with the decision to ease sanctions for a specific interval as a method of testing the seriousness of Iranian future intentions ought never to have exploded into a major personal and bilateral confrontation, especially between two nations that share many of the same geopolitical views.

Perhaps the Hanukka/Thanksgiving break will permit the healing to begin. Both leaders need all the help they can get: When the six-month clock on the Iranian nuclear deal expires, there will be much more dramatic issues on the table than are there today.

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