x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Victory over health bill is boost for Obama

The Democratic Party's victory on healthcare reform legislation has boosted Barack Obama's standing around the world, not just in the US.

WASHINGTON // The Democratic Party's victory on healthcare reform legislation this week has emboldened Barack Obama and boosted his standing around the world in a way that could have a noticeable impact on his foreign policy, some political analysts say. The achievement leaves Mr Obama in a stronger position politically here, potentially increasing the chances that he could win a second term, and affords him greater clout with world leaders eager to partner with the United States, some say. Others note that the victory could give Mr Obama the sense of being a historic figure and the confidence to take on tougher issues internationally.

Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington, said he believed the healthcare bill's passage increases Mr Obama's political capital "in every realm of the presidency, including foreign affairs". "Foreign leaders will take him more seriously," he said. "The fact that Obama pulled this off certainly makes him a more consequential figure on the world stage." Analysts caution against drawing a straight line between success at home and success abroad. A domestic legislative victory, they say, does not necessarily translate to positive outcomes in the many foreign policy challenges Mr Obama faces, from mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the war in Afghanistan. In fact few analysts were able to point to a specific aspect of foreign affairs where Mr Obama's healthcare victory would have an immediate or dramatic affect.

But David Pollock, who served as senior adviser for the Broader Middle East at the State Department during George W Bush's presidency, said the gains for Mr Obama's presidency were real. "It's more of a psychological, and probably limited and temporary advantage," Mr Pollock, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. "But I do think for the next few months ... it's probably significant."

World leaders have followed the healthcare debate here with some interest and more than a dozen heads of state, including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Felipe Calderon of Mexico, and Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom, have congratulated the president since the measure cleared the US House of Representatives on Sunday, according to a White House spokesman. Still, some foreign policy analysts such as Christian Whiton, a former state department official who worked on North Korean human rights issues during the Bush presidency, doubt that passage of Mr Obama's signature domestic priority will change the way he is viewed by his counterparts. "If anything, they were probably surprised it took so long," Mr Whiton said, noting that the battle over healthcare reform is far from over and that Republicans have vowed to make it a losing issue for Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections.

"I don't think it will change the perception abroad of whether he is powerful or not". The legislative victory did not appear to have any immediate game-changing affect on at least one foreign policy issue that has dominated headlines in recent days: the US dispute with Israel over settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Just hours after signing the legislation, Mr Obama met at the White House Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. The closed-door meeting did not bring a major breakthrough on the settlement issue and, in fact, ended with Israel showing no signs of changing its settlement policy, as the United States has requested.

However, Israelis are known for closely watching US politics and the perception of Mr Obama as a strong political leader with staying power could ultimately change how he is perceived in Israel and how his policies are received by the Israeli government, some analysts say. There is little historical precedent to suggest that the domestic successes lead to stronger foreign policies. Mr Lichtman, the American University historian, noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's foreign policy, which many regarded as a success because of the US victory in the Second World War, was largely aided by his reputation as a strong and trusted domestic leader who had helped pull the country out of the Great Depression. Other historians, however, dispute that, arguing that the relationship between foreign and domestic affairs was more complex, with Roosevelt's foreign policies helping him secure legislative and electoral victories at home.

For Mr Obama, some analysts say, the healthcare victory could afford him immediate political cover on the war in Afghanistan. The most vocal critics of his war strategy have been liberal Democrats, many of whom may now be willing to cut the president some slack. Though some liberal Democrats criticised the healthcare legislation for not doing enough, the measure ultimately won the support of key liberal leaders such as Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio congressman.

Others say the best way to measure the impact of the healthcare victory may be to look at what might have happened had it failed. If there is scant evidence to show that domestic victories lead to foreign policy ones, there is plenty to suggest that a loss on health care would have weakened Mr Obama abroad, according to Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. "Defeats at home have a huge impact on a president's ability to lead in foreign affairs because when they are politically crippled, neither their opponents or supporters at home or abroad feels compelled to follow their lead," Mr Dallek, now a Stanford University professor based in Washington, said. "If Obama had lost this healthcare fight, it would have been a political disaster."

@Email:sstanek@thenational.ae