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Obama is Attempting a Reset

By Elvin Lim


For all the talk of a presidential reset button, the truth is that formal, public, dramatic resets don’t work. They never have. Not when Nixon fired Joseph Califano, or when Carter fired four of his cabinet secretaries. The American presidency works best when it works silently, and the power exercised is invisible. It doesn’t matter which party is in control of the White House; when foreign policy becomes issue number one, the executive becomes branch number one.

Something has crept up on us under an invisibility cloak. It is the new agenda in Washington. How quickly Washington has forgotten about jobs now that the elections are over. (Politicians won’t have to pander to voters for another year or so.) Check out any newspaper, or cable channel: the bait and switch from jobs to national security is nothing short of astounding. Washington is abuzz with talk of TSA pat-downs, the NATO summit, North Korea’ uranium-enriching facility, and, most prominently, ratification of the new START treaty.

Last April, both President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the new START treaty, which would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expired in December 2009 (and which had been proposed by Ronald Reagan himself.) If ratified, this treaty would be just about the most tangible foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration and this is the ideal reset button if ever there were one.

That is why Obama has put most of his eggs in this basket, using his weekend address to continue the publicity blitz started out by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates advocating senate ratification of the treaty. Republican senators say that the treaty would be an obstacle to America’s missile defense programs and the modernization of our nuclear weapons. The Obama administration argues that if the US does not sign the treaty, then it would not be able to send inspectors into Russia to verify its nuclear capability; it also argues that failure to ratify the treaty would weaken Russia’s resolve to cooperate with the US on dealing with Iran, Afghanistan, and terrorism.

The weight of public and expert opinion is on the administration’s side. Five former secretaries of state, including Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, and six former secretaries of defense, including William Cohen and James Schlesinger, are already on the record in support of ratification, as is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen. Democratic senators are hoping to take on vote on the treaty sometime in December, and are still gathering Republicans to make the requisite 67 required for passage. Senator Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (which has already approved the treaty on a 14-4 bipartisan vote) has come out strongly in support of ratification. His is a critical and respected voice who may well be able to bring 8 republicans on board. This is a winnable issue for the administration, and they know it.

Just weeks after his electoral “shellacking,” this could be Obama at the nadir of his presidency, and yet he dares call the Republican’s bluff on START. This is the audacity of the executive pride, because when the president talks foreign policy, he gets an automatic pass. The deference he enjoys is practically monarchical, and chief executives since Washington have known its power. That is how George Bush managed to get the Democrats on board with him to go to war in Iraq, and this is how Barack Obama will attempt his presidential reset. Quietly, without fanfare, we have pivoted from butter to guns, from jobs to security. Coincidence? For better or for worse, the executive pride will not be humbled.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Read Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

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