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The Obama Signature

U.S. President Talks to The Other Side

By Raphael J. Sonenshein

Raphael J. Sonenshein

What do Congressional Republicans, the government of Iran, Rick Warren and the Muslim world have in common? They are all recipients of the most startling feature of the early Barack Obama presidency: his willingness to talk with adversaries. To a degree I have never seen before in a president, Obama has been willing to sit down with those on the other side of political, philosophical and religious divides.

This is a high-risk, high-gain strategy. Every time Obama does this stretch, it terrifies his natural allies. Does this mean he is abandoning his base?

Right now, a lot of Democrats are worried that the country's 44th president is spending too much time talking with Congressional Republicans about a stimulus package they are likely to oppose. Many progressives were appalled that conservative evangelical preacher Warren got a prime speaking slot at the Inauguration. Last week, Obama went on a TV network based in Saudi Arabia to give a talk to Muslims around the world.

One risk of the Obama approach is that his loyal supporters will become angry and alienated. Another is that the recipients of his warmth will misinterpret his actions as support for their positions. Yet another is that the political press, especially in DC, needs a scorecard and when they don’t have one, they will invent one. One reporter actually asked if Obama would veto his own stimulus bill if it did not have “enough” Republicans on board! (The best answer to that question would be “duh…no!”) Soon it will be, “You talked to Iran, and they are still nasty, so what’s up with that?”

But the upsides are considerable. Even though Congressional Republicans showed little interest in supporting his stimulus plan, Obama received a very warm welcome at Capitol Hill, and Republicans may come on board on some other issues. Al Qaeda obviously is quite worried about Obama now that they have a popular American president who might have some appeal to the very Islamic world for which they have been portraying themselves as heroes. His willingness to talk with Iran could considerably strengthen internal forces in that country that are more interested than their current president in reaching out to the West.

In short, it is a tool of considerable value in the complex world of politics and diplomacy. In the political arena, it may even have the virtue of making the Rev. Wright controversy irrelevant since Obama can quite accurately note that he talks and communicates with lots of people and nations he disagrees with.

It’s fun to watch, but I must say that, sometimes, I get a little vertigo…

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair and professor of political science. He spent the fall semester as a Fulbright Scholar in France, where he served as an expert commentator on Obama's campaign, election and inauguration.

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