Slow start on a second term

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It is becoming increasingly difficult four months after the re-election of President Barack Obama to discern by his actions exactly what he stands for.

Those who wanted decisive leadership were prepared prior to the November elections to cut him slack on some issues, not expecting him to take positions that might cost him more votes than they would gain. But that isn't the case now. An argument that he is weaseling in order not to poison the well for Democratic candidates in the 2014 congressional elections, or the even more will-o-the-wisp 2016 presidential candidates, does not carry water at this point.

So, are we to conclude that he makes a great speech but couldn't organize a two-car funeral? Or has he been terminally buffaloed by the lobbyists, warhawks and corporate and banking shills who run Washington? Or is he, in spite of his inspiring story and background, just like the rest of them? There is a wonderful Texas expression to describe what he might have become -- "all hat, no cattle."

One prime example is that he appears to have acquiesced in a decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to abandon the effort to draw upon the momentum created by the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre to reinstate a ban on the sale of assault weapons. Mr. Obama went to Newtown, mourned with the parents of the 20 dead first-graders and the families of murdered school staff, promising action. Now Mr. Reid has told him that only 40 senators have the courage to resist the financial and other threats made by the gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association, and that he doesn't have enough votes to bring an assault-weapons-ban bill to a vote in the Senate.

Mr. Obama clearly did not tell Mr. Reid, one of the least inspiring congressional leaders the United States has ever had, to get back out there and find the votes. Instead, he has kept more or less silent on the subject, letting those who would continue to allow the sale of assault weapons, which is equivalent to supporting the continued killing of children, carry the day. At least make them stand up and be counted. So, on this issue, the president talked a good game, but chose not to lead his party when the chips were down.

We saw a certain amount of that in his first term. Obamacare did address the rapidly growing problem of rising costs and declining quality of American health care relative to the rest of the world. But what finally emerged was so full of compromises that it will be a wonder if it ever works and if anyone can even make sense of it.

The president also punted on third down when it came to retaining the so-called Bush tax cuts. He could have saved all of us a lot of misery, including sequestration, if he had just let them all expire, pocketed the needed extra revenue and absorbed the wailing and gnashing of teeth. If Mr. Obama does nothing useful with the new mandate he received from the American people, what was the point of his winning?

It is sometimes said that American presidents in their second terms really show their mettle in the field of foreign affairs. Mr. Obama's just-completed trip to the Middle East, where he confronted what must be the toughest and most important problem in the world -- the Israeli-Palestinian struggle at the center of the Western conflict with the Islamic world -- was a good first test of his foreign policy posture for the next four years.

Again, he made inspiring speeches. He offered hope to the Israelis that the United States was going to help them out of their ever-deepening dilemma, and to the Palestinians that America was going to help them get their state, and to the region and world that the United States wasn't going to continue to stand by idly while things got worse.

There are plenty of problems an American president should address frankly. The Israelis continue to eat on our tab and shelter under our military umbrella, but they put no limits on their gobbling up big pieces of the land that would be Palestine if there is ever to be one. They continue to dream that they can take the whole of Palestine and the Palestinians will get nothing except semi-slave status.

The Palestinians, on their part, continue to fight among themselves between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza in spite of the best efforts of the Egyptians, helping to justify the Israelis' position that there is no coherent Palestinian side with which they can negotiate.

Mr. Obama during his visit surrendered peremptorily the Palestinian position that Israel had to suspend settlement building before they, the Palestinians, would talk. The American people were asked to take enormous satisfaction from Mr. Obama's success in getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to telephone Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to kiss and make up over a three-year-old quarrel. That's a monumental diplomatic success?

Granted, perhaps we are being asked tacitly by Mr. Obama to believe that he was softening up the Israelis and Palestinians in advance of a major effort to get them to negotiate constructively. I remain an optimist.

At the same time, I also see the flames in the Middle East around Israel rising higher, fanned in part by us as, for example, we use the CIA to funnel arms bought in Croatia through Jordan to the Syrian rebels, an action which we assume Mr. Obama approved with his brain fully engaged. We assume he also will be around when the Syrians seek to take revenge on Jordan's King Abdullah II and his shaky kingdom. Or, having wrapped up the Iraq war and winding down the Afghanistan war, is Mr. Obama looking for another one to spend our money on instead of at home?


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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