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'Is He Weak?'

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shortly after the Group of 20 summit concluded in London in April, Nicolas Sarkozy blurted out to a small group of advisers a question that weighed on him as he watched President Obama glad-hand his way through the gathering: "Est-il faible?" (Is he weak?)

The French president did not answer his own blunt query, which faded as the American leader commanded a hectic round of domestic economic intervention and agenda-setting abroad in the weeks that followed. Initial doubts about Obama's toughness went on the shelf at the Elysee Palace and elsewhere.

But the Sarkozy question was abruptly dusted off as Obama began hitting resistance to some of his most ambitious goals, including health-care reform, Middle East peacemaking and engagement with Iran. Is Obama making tactical retreats to gain better position on these hard cases -- or is he, well, weak?

It is an odd question to ask about a man who tenaciously fought his way to the presidency against enormous odds, then dazzled the country and much of the world in his first six months in office.

But it is one inevitably raised by Obama's conciliatory manner, his appeals to sweet reason and high morality, and his soaring rhetorical promises when he has to adjust means, goals or both. And it will dog his presidency if he does not demonstrate quickly that he is as good at handling adversity as he has been at exploiting initial success.

His fiercest Republican critics will of course hurl charges of weakness to tear him down and gain partisan advantage. Voters will see through that. But the president has to guard against letting even sensible tactical retreats corrode his image as a fighter for change.

The withering criticism that liberal Democrats are directing at Obama over a public insurance option as part of health-care reform shows his vulnerability. Similarly, his economic spokesmen created confusion about his (and their) resolve this month when they seemed to edge toward, and then back away from, tax increases on the middle class.

Was the president of two minds on these matters and using trial balloons? Had he failed to explain himself to his most senior associates? Or were they trying to bounce him into changing course? Whatever, an air of indecision gathered over a White House that prides itself on crisp decision-making.

"Characteristically, Mr. Obama has been trying to have it both ways," the Financial Times editorialized about the health-care ruckus. "Characteristically" was the dagger in that sentence.

Obama has also left some Arab leaders with whom he recently met confused and doubtful about his intentions on Middle East peace. They have reported to aides that the president acknowledged that he has failed thus far to secure matching concessions from Arab countries and Israel as the basis for new negotiations.

The Arabs complain that they have been offered no tangible incentives to move toward normalizing relations with Israel before an Israeli-Palestinian deal is reached. They dismiss both Obama's publicly undisclosed demand for a one-year freeze on Israeli settlements and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's counteroffer of a six-month freeze as equally meaningless.

"Incrementalism and the step-by-step approach has not, and we believe will not, achieve peace," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters in Washington on July 31. The comments by Saud, who did not see Obama, echoed the broad Arab consensus that Obama has not been bold enough. "Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace," the Saudi prince added.

The president promised his Arab interlocutors that he would spell out his Middle East strategy in a major address in mid-to-late September. Around that time he will also have to decide whether to seek tougher sanctions against Iran if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime continues to decline Obama's offer of engagement. A failure to get China and Russia to go along with U.N. Security Council sanctions would doom Obama's fallback plan and damage his credibility.

If you want to see this president succeed, as I do, you can construct an alternative narrative in which he is throwing dust in the eyes of opponents and resolutely moving toward goals that are worthy, if not as exalted as those originally proclaimed.

But it hasn't felt that way in this uneven August. In Washington the old saw about perception being reality is all too true. And all too final, once an impression of unsteadiness has been etched onto public opinion.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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