Obama risks falling into the gulf between image and political reality

The trouble is because Obama has set himself up as no mere politician, his willingness to make a casual promise he cannot keep makes voters doubt all his other promises.

The image of a man beyond petty electoral considerations is revealed to be just that — the product of an image consultant

WITH the American primary season finally over and the Democrats having kissed and made up, the policy differences between the candidates are receiving greater attention. Democrats are understandably eager to paint John McCain on tax, on Iraq, on healthcare as Chapter 3 in the Book of Bush.

In truth, though, McCain has established enough distance from the president on issues like the environment to gain a fair hearing with independents. He is probably the best candidate the Republicans could run in the (pretty dire) circumstances. Nevertheless, with nearly five months still to go until polling day and the American economy looking out of puff, the momentum is with the senator from Illinois. The race is his to lose.

Barack Hussein Obama has an extraordinary gift for stimulating the guilty zones of educated white liberals and blacks throng to him. But among four specific constituencies he piles up negatives: older females, working-class Scotch-Irish males, Hispanics and, that most traditionally Democrat of ethnic groups, Jews.

Between now and November, Obama is on a mission to assuage the doubts these groups harbour. He will seek to address their concerns one by one.

In tougher times, Americans of whatever background — like Europeans — pay most attention to pocketbook concerns. But even the price of petrol is not a wholly domestic issue and with the last of the four critical groups mentioned, foreign policy — specifically policy towards Israel and its neighbours — has a particular resonance. Abroad, too, the question deserves serious attention: what does Obama’s rhetoric about ‘change’ mean when it comes to that cockpit of the world’s problems, the Middle East?

Precious little, some in the Arab world concluded after hearing Obama address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most effective — critics say sinister — lobbying groups in Washington. Obama had set himself an express objective: to allay concerns that he was equivocal about Israel’s security and the threat posed by Iran in particular.

McCain has been categorical. He has committed himself “to never allowing another Holocaust”.

Obama, however, fought Hillary Clinton from the left field. He promised negotiations with Iran without preconditions, potentially overturning three decades of US policy. To AIPAC, though, Obama was keen to stress he was ruling nothing out, including, he intimated, military strikes to destroy Iran’s budding nuclear weapons capacity. The audience loved it — mission accomplished, as it were. But he went further, some would say ill-advisedly. He declared that, as far as he is concerned, Jerusalem must always remain the capital of Israel and must never be divided. This could be an unsustainable position.

Uniquely in the world, Israel’s declared capital and its parliament are in one city — Jerusalem — and all the foreign embassies, including the American one, are in another — Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem’s status is possibly the thorniest of all the Arab-Israeli issues. Very many Jews see the settlements in the West Bank as defensive positions, optional extras. Jerusalem is different. It is at the very core of Jewish and Israeli identity.

In part of the city, though, Arabs make up the overwhelming local majority. For Muslim Palestinians, the city also has special significance, albeit somewhat beneath that of Mecca. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Western Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites, is in the Old City which constitutes part of mainly Arab east Jerusalem.

The bottom line is that few believe the Jerusalem issue can be addressed before all the other issues are solved and, even then, it will be ferociously difficult. But if it can be — and it’s a big ‘but’ — it’s hard to see how that can be reconciled with Obama’s apparent commitment to it remaining united under Israeli sovereignty.

Is McCain’s position any different? No. Does he maintain this contradiction between solemn commitment and practical reality? Naturally. If lasting peace was on the table, would he climb down and compromise on Jerusalem a bit? Of course he would. McCain is a pragmatist.

But wasn’t Obama supposed to be a fundamental change from all the other cynical careerists? Wasn’t he supposed to be a man of the highest principle — that rarest of all commodities, a politician you could trust? There is an irony here.

On the one hand, no one believes for a minute that Obama wouldn’t sell out on Jerusalem when it came to it. On the other, getting the commitment out of him was seen as vital. The trouble is because Barack Obama has set himself up as no mere politician, his willingness to make a casual promise that he cannot keep makes voters doubt all his other promises. The image of a man beyond petty electoral considerations is revealed to be just that — the product of an image consultant.

A campaign adviser quickly qualified Obama’s position, stating that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital (for now) and “it’s not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints” — which isn’t quite the same as “united”. This was just the latest in a series of such clarifications. Irish-born adviser Samantha Power, who had to resign after calling Hillary Clinton a “monster”, speaking of Obama’s plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, said he wouldn’t “rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate”. We saw it again when his economic adviser assured Canada that Obama wasn’t really serious about the anti-free trade rhetoric he was spewing.

PEOPLE are beginning to wonder what this “change you can believe in” really amounts to. When Obama says he won’t talk to Hamas, the Islamists who run the Gaza Strip, is he to believed, for example? Of course, what are presumed to be Obama’s real views find a ready embrace in European capitals, but the Obama brand is taking hit after hit.

Fully 43% of Americans believe he is “not tough enough” on national security and foreign policy. While seemingly ruling nothing out, his pretty obvious preference would be to engage in direct bilateral discussions with Iran — much as America negotiated with the Soviet Union, he says.

And it’s true that Jack Kennedy, for instance, backed down during the Cuban missile crisis, offering to remove US nuclear warheads from Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet nukes from Cuba. But that was only after deploying troops and going to the brink of war to make the alternatives to negotiations credible. There was another difference, too: Khrushchev was open to a deal. The Iranians repeatedly insist they are not.

McCain, by contrast, can come across as belligerent to an American public wary of further foreign engagements. The Obama people paint him as an ideologue who wants to keep troops in Iraq for another 100 years. The Republican candidate — who once jokingly sang “bomb Iran” to the tune of Beach Boys’ hit Barbara Ann — has been reassuring voters with an “I hate war” campaign ad. Having had his body broken to pieces in Vietnam, he has every reason to.

Still, if McCain can sow enough doubts in voters minds about Obama’s credibility as commander-in-chief, this election might not be the slam dunk it appears right now.

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