Obama's 'One President' Gambit
Democrat Defers to Bush on Foreign Policy but Not on Economy

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.

Obama has asked Congress to have a stimulus package ready to "jolt" the economy by the time he is sworn in. And weeks ago, he assigned his economic advisers to work with Congress to write the legislation. "With our economy in distress, we cannot hesitate and we cannot delay," Obama said Nov. 25. "Our families can't afford to keep on waiting."

On Dec. 2, he met with the nation's governors, pledging to work with them to put people back to work. Five days later, in a radio address, he unveiled a plan to fix the nation's infrastructure, including the crumbling transportation grid, and to invest in green technology.

His aides are deep in discussion with the Democratic leadership in the U.S. House, which will return next week to take up an economic plan that Obama designed. On Dec. 21, after meeting with top economic advisers, the president-elect upped his job creation goal from 2.5 million to 3 million.

"A hemorrhaging financial system and economy, where there's got to be some confidence in the Fed and the U.S. government, leads to a departure from what would otherwise be 'one president at a time,' " said Graham Allison, a presidential scholar at Harvard University.

But Allison said the ongoing crisis in the Gaza Strip -- like the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last month -- does not present the same need to break from a long-standing tradition of deference. "It's not that clear what the U.S. can do or necessarily even should do," Allison said. "Given that [Obama] doesn't have responsibility, it gives him a way to avoid being just another part of the story."

That has been Obama's approach to foreign policy since the day after he was elected, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned in a speech that he would deploy short-range missiles capable of striking NATO territory if Obama proceeded with plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe.

Obama declined to comment. Biden, who late in the campaign wondered aloud about a foreign policy test, was silent as well.

A few weeks later, when terrorists killed 171 people in India's financial capital, Obama condemned the attacks and said they demonstrated the need to stand with "nations around the world to root out and destroy terrorist networks."

But his aides refused to take the bait when reporters raised Obama's campaign statement that the United States should act unilaterally in Pakistan to eliminate terrorist threats. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President [Pervez] Musharraf won't act, we will," he said at the time.

Obama's top advisers have been equally hesitant during the Gaza crisis, even as Israeli politicians have been quoting the president-elect's words from the campaign: "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing."

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod acknowledged the statement during an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. But he added: "The Bush administration has to speak for America now."

Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, has made no statements about the Mideast situation since Israel's aerial assault on Gaza began Saturday. A handful of pro-Palestinian activists gathered in front of Obama's $9 million rental home Tuesday, some of them carrying signs urging him to address Mideast policy when he becomes president.

Ann Wright, 62, a retired Army colonel, wore a T-shirt that read "We will not be silent" and carried a sign that said: "Change U.S. foreign policy. Yes we can." Her group, Veterans for Peace, later issued a news release: "We call on President-elect Obama to place the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of his list of priorities of his new administration."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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