Saturday, March 27, 2010

The delayed gratification presidency

"Patience" and "persistence" have been the Obama team's watchwords as they tout the Presidedent's victories in health care reform and an arms reduction treaty with Russia.

For months, delays in Obama's signature projects have been portrayed as signs of weakness. But the 'patience' tag is carefully chosen.  The long delays are in at least some cases a result of Obama's willingness to wait out counterparties -- and so a sign of strength.

That is the subtext of the admittedly Administration-lauding account by The New York Times' Peter Baker of the yearlong negotiations with Russia (though Baker pointedly claims Russians as well as admin officials as sources).  The narrative suggests that the Russians repeatedly tried to roll Obama and " would not resolve the big issues until they had taken his measure"; and that last month, when Medvedev introduced 11th-hour demands, Obama had to show willingness to let the whole deal fall apart.  Perhaps even more revealing, though, is this chapter:
The two sides also split over sharing missile data known as telemetry. Moscow was adamant that the new treaty not require telemetry exchange. The topic came up so frequently that Mr. Medvedev joked, “My favorite word in English now is ‘telemetry.’ ”

With those issues unresolved, Start expired in December. The Russians calculated that Mr. Obama would be so eager to have a new treaty by the time he traveled to Oslo later that month to accept his Nobel Peace Prize that he would accept concessions, so they took a hard line.

The rap on the peace prize, of course, was that Obama had no concrete accomplishments on the world stage. The temptation to seal a deal may have been strong.  But the evidence is considerable -- in health care, in setting AfPak strategy, and in "new Start" negotiations with the Russians -- that Obama is willing to appear weak rather than be so.

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