WASHINGTON — Three weeks after a combative speech at American University in which he defended the nuclear deal with Iran and compared Republican detractors to Iranian hardliners, US President Barack Obama’s Friday afternoon webcast to the US Jewish community offered a somewhat different tone. Stressing repeatedly the resilience of the US-Israel relationship, Obama’s address was a tactical gesture of conciliation – but it was not one that entirely masked the no-holds-barred political battle still underway in Washington.
Obama mentioned the words “friends” and “family” a dozen times in the webcast – either discussing the US relationship with Israel or his own relationship with Jewish supporters – but also repeated the analogy that even families argue. Family arguments are often even more passionate than ones with outsiders, he opined, offering yet another fold on a metaphor that has become threadbare from use during the months of US-Israel acrimony.
The president sounded like he was helming a confident White House where the Iran deal is concerned, understandably. Thirty Democratic senators are now publicly in favor of the controversial deal, and the administration is thus closing in on its coveted goal of sustaining a veto on a vote of disapproval likely to be held next month. The fact that the announcement by Senator Charles Schumer that he would oppose the deal was not followed by a cascade of defection – a fear that had been widely acknowledged in Washington – had clearly given the president the space to sound magnanimous. But he didn’t fully utilize it.
Speaking in a webcast sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Obama was addressing an audience that has already been deluged with information both for and against the deal, which has been public since mid-July. He would have known that once again hearing the administration’s talking points about terror funding or cutting off the four paths to a nuclear weapon would do little to change the opinion of those opposed.
So Obama could instead shore up his weakest flank – the overwhelming concern by participants on both (and neither) sides of the debate regarding the acrimonious tone that the conversation has taken. As captain of Team Pro-Deal, a ringing endorsement of civility on both sides of the fight coupled with a resounding reaffirmation of the importance of the US-Israel relationship by the president could make strides in preparing both partisan camps for the morning after.
For much of his 45 minutes or so on front of the webcams, Obama did just that — making a largely positive case for the deal, calling for civility, and reinforcing his commitment to Israel’s security and US-Israel relations.
And yet it was one of those cases where the devil may have been in the details – in the small print, the asides, the one-sentence-too-manys.
Obama stressed that “people of goodwill can come down of both sides,” but then suggested that there shouldn’t be equivalence between the personal attacks that pro-deal Jewish Congressman Jerrold Nadler was subjected to – attacks that were condemned by at least one major organization that opposes the deal – and the (at times also bitterly personal) attacks against those who oppose the deal, like Schumer. With a real opportunity to be equitable – to distance himself from the unacceptable rhetoric leveled against both Schumer and Nadler – Obama chose instead to assert that the two were not comparable.
Rather than acknowledging that members of his camp had also questioned loyalty – not to Israel, but to America – Obama instead said that he and his administration have “tried to stay focused” on substantive arguments regarding the deal itself.
Rather than acknowledging the danger of classical stereotypes of warmongering, wealthy Jews – imagery that has generated concern even among those who support the deal – Obama instead argued
that “at no point have I ever suggested that somebody is a warmonger” — and then proceeded to explain why the only option that remained in the absence of a deal was a military strike.
Rather than acknowledging that there were different interpretations of the outcome of rejecting the deal (which could have been done even while asserting the rightness of the administration’s read on the outcomes), Obama accused the opposition of “pretend[ing] that there are other easier options that are available.”
The president did repeatedly call for a re-strengthening of US-Israel ties, stressing that the relationship between the two states extends far beyond a “mere alliance of convenience” – and that even his most passionate detractors in the Israeli government recognize his contribution to Israel’s security.
The point was strong, impassioned, and believable, but it was somewhat tempered by the implication – reiterated twice – that a petulant Israel was now refusing to sit down and talk security with the US because of sour grapes over the deal.
Obama’s defense of the Iran deal before the Jewish community was thorough and strongly-argued. But while the rhetoric was certainly dialed down from previous weeks – from his conference-call-to-arms with progressive groups in late July and his American University speech earlier this month – the president could have gone further. He could have acknowledged that his administration was culpable in part for the hostility of the debate. That might even have achieved the central purpose of his advocacy — creating the necessary maneuvering space for those members of Congress still uncommitted to join Team Pro-Deal.