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Obama's ‘One President' Philosophy Is Not One-Fit-All

President-elect Barack Obama greets well-wishers in Honolulu. Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, has been silent about the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration, insisting that doing otherwise would undermine President Bush.
President-elect Barack Obama greets well-wishers in Honolulu. Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, has been silent about the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration, insisting that doing otherwise would undermine President Bush. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When it comes to repairing the faltering U.S. economy, Barack Obama offers vision, numbers and detail. But as Israeli bombs and Palestinian rockets explode in the Middle East, the president-elect has responded with silence.

With 20 days until he takes office, Obama is likely to encounter a region reshaped by new violence once he becomes commander in chief. But he has refused to engage in diplomatic conversation before then, insisting that to do so would undermine President Bush. "President-elect Obama is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza, but there is one president at a time," said Brooke Anderson, Obama's national security spokeswoman.

But while the "one president" philosophy has kept Obama mum on emerging foreign policy crises since the Nov. 4 election, he has abandoned it when it comes to the economy, talking at great length and in great detail about his plans for the nation's financial recovery.

Obama -- and the usually loquacious Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. -- are deferential to Bush on international affairs. Meanwhile, they have all but taken over from the current White House occupant the job of designing an economic rescue, declaring weeks ago that "work starts today."

The difference offers a glimpse into Obama's careful governing style, in which the 44th president and his team weigh the risks of action against the political advantages of doing or saying nothing.

"It seems clear he's just cherry-picking those things that serve his purpose and staying as far away from Middle East troubles as he can," said G. Calvin MacKenzie, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine. "Come January 21, he's going to have to deal with some of these issues. But politically, there's no good news there. There's no benefit in him getting involved with that sooner than he has to."

Aides say the president-elect's silence on foreign policy follows a long-held principle that reserves such issues to the president. Offering a competing voice could have immediate consequences for U.S. policy.

"President-elect Obama believes it is important to adhere to the constitutional principle that there is only one president at a time, and it is extremely important in the arena of foreign policy that it is clear who is speaking on behalf of the United States," incoming press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

As a candidate, Obama said he would rebuild the nation's reputation and promised to end the Iraq war while shifting resources to Afghanistan. But the economic collapse has dramatically refocused his agenda, especially for the first few months of his administration.

In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, two-thirds of Americans highlighted economic issues as the top priority for Obama and the next Congress. Fewer than 1 percent cited a "foreign policy" concern as their primary issue. Nine percent singled out the war in Iraq as the top problem they want the next administration to tackle, a big drop from the issue's prominence before the primaries.

Even among Americans' foreign policy concerns, the Israeli-Palestinian issue ranks low. In a September Pew Research Center poll, 25 percent called "finding a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians" a top long-range priority for the United States, putting it at the bottom of a 12-item list topped by protecting the country against terrorism and preserving U.S. jobs.

Shortly after the election, Obama signaled that he would spend the 11-week transition largely in the background, deferring to his predecessor. But when it comes to the economy, he has been anything but a political wallflower.


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