Obama’s talk at the Saban Forum this past Saturday may have been the most impressive moment of his presidency. The topic, of course, was the Iran negotiation, and secondarily the Israeli-Palestinian talks. The Saban Forum is the zenith of the liberal wing of the Israel lobby; billionaire Haim Saban has purchased a large segment of a venerable American think tank to amplify his pro-Israel views, while serving as one of the main funders of the Democratic Party. Many Democrats, most notably the Clintons, take the money and support and bend the way the money intends. Obama is trying to keep the support without bending too much, and to watch him in action engaged in this most difficult of balancing acts is a window into an American politician working at the highest level.
To dispense first with the obvious, the President took questions for about fifty minutes, speaking without notes, before a well informed and highly skeptical audience, on a subject of tremendous gravity. He was nuanced and diplomatic, charming when he needed to be, subtle, precise. He knew just how to gently deflect a question towards grounds which allowed him to make a point he wanted to make. His mastery over the issue and how best to argue it was as complete as I’ve seen in a politician.
I think we all knew Obama was pretty smart, but this is a level of the communication altogether beyond the reach of the average Ivy League graduate or American politician. The fuddlement of the health care rollout and the drumbeat of Republican propaganda, even if one understands the source, has created an undertow of cynicism about Obama’s leadership abilities: that Obama is not that competent a President. There is a temptation to concede that while he is good at making speeches, he can’t administrate, lacks a vision of how to get things done. One need not buy into the ubiquitous Drudge snark that Obama is lost without a teleprompter to feel that his presidency has not been what his supporters (even his conservative ones) had hoped.
But here Obama was, on what I considered the most critical issue of his presidency, hitting it out of the park. Worth noting is the whole passive aggressive interplay between Obama and Haim Saban, the male banter about the wife being the person really in charge, and the pointed questions, from Saban and various Israeli journalists, designed to trip Obama up. He doesn’t make the case that I yearn for an American president to one day make, questioning whether American Mideast policy ought to be tied exclusively to the desires an aggressive and largely despised ethnocracy. But in that sense he is a political realist, a quality highly desirable in a president.
Instead with a politician masterfully exploring the realm of the possible, seeking to “test the possibility we can resolve this issue diplomatically,” connecting his Iran diplomacy to the concerns expressed in Prime Minister Netanhayu’s UN presentation, quietly reminding his hawkish audience (and the AIPAC-influenced Congress) that “if we did not show good faith in trying to resolve this issue diplomatically, the sanctions regime would begin to fray, and above all that “this is hard”—Iran having already mastered the nuclear fuel cycle. He was, by turns, charming, diplomatic, and frank, and it was—perhaps more than anything I’ve seen since the administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush, a moment to be proud of one’s president. Hanging in the balance is whether Obama will succeed in tempering the hostility of this audience to Iran diplomacy, which will help stay AIPAC’s efforts to blow it up by legislating new sanctions. At this writing that seems to me a 50/50 proposition. But to have achieved even those odds makes me pleased with my vote last November.