President Obama intends to leverage the elimination of Bin Laden and intensify pressure on Israel. However, the capability of an American President to exert pressure in the international arena is a derivative of his domestic clout, especially when it comes to pressuring the Jewish State. Most Americans consider the Jewish State not only an international issue, but also a domestic issue, related to the Judeo-Christian foundations of the USA, enjoying an inherent bi-partisan high-level public and congressional support.
On May 20, 2011, Prime Minister Netanyahu will meet with President Obama, whose frail popularity constitutes a burden upon Democratic incumbents and candidates as we approach the November 2012 election. The President struggles to gain public support for his legislative agenda and for his reelection campaign, in spite of the overwhelming support of his authorization to eliminate Bin Laden (80%).
On May 20, Netanyahu will meet a president who seeks enhanced cooperation with Congress, lest he become a lame-duck president failing to be reelected in 2012. However, most legislators oppose pressure on the Jewish State, whose solid support is a rare bipartisan common denominator during an era of heated polarization on Capitol Hill. Obama will try to pressure Netanyahu, but will not sacrifice his key goal – a second term – on the altar of the Palestinian issue. Obama is familiar with Tip O’Neill’s assertion that “All politics is local.” He has learned from his predecessors that external success usually does not rid presidents of domestic woes.
For instance, Bush 41st surged from 39% to 85% popularity following the 1991 Gulf War. Bush also benefitted from the dismantling of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall – significantly more dramatic developments than the elimination of Bin Laden. Therefore, major Democratic candidates were deterred from challenging Bush in November 1992, which paved the road for the relatively unknown Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. In contrast to Bush, who was preoccupied with foreign and national security issues, Clinton adhered to the advice of James Carville and Paul Begala: “It’s the economy, stupid!” As constituents turned their attention back to economic and health problems, Bush’s Gulf War “bonus” gradually dissipated. On election day President Bush reverted to his real political popularity – 38% – and Clinton won.
Presidents Wilson and FDR were heroes of WW1and WW2 – dramatically more notable events than the slaying of Bin Laden – but they lost Democratic majorities in both congressional chambers in the 1918 and 1946 elections. Bush 43rd gained a 35% popularity bonus following 9/11 and the 2003 apprehension of Saddam Hussein, but he barely won in 2004 (51%:48%). His role in the economic meltdown triggered GOP election devastation in November 2008.
The killing of Bin Laden has accorded President Obama an extremely slim, soft and short-term bonus. The counter-terrorism global milestone is unrelated to the long-term issues haunting Obama at home: unemployment, the price of gasoline, the deficit, the national debt, taxation, the mortgage and pension funds crises, declining housing values, the threat of inflation and recession, potential insolvency of states and municipalities, health reform, etc.
Ridding humanity of Bin Laden deserves much praise, but its impact on Obama’s domestic clout is minimal, and it does not provide the President with a public or congressional mandate to pressure the Jewish State. Will Prime Minister Netanyahu leverage public and Capitol Hill support and fend off pressure attempts by President Obama, who has been transformed from a coattail-president to an anchor-chained president? Will Netanyahu leverage the seismic developments in Arab lands – which have exposed the marginal role played by the Palestinian issue in shaping the Middle East agenda – and focus on the need to enhance strategic cooperation between the USA and the Jewish State, in order to face the mounting threats in the Middle East?