How Barack Put Bibi In the Corner

The President's remarks reveal he's reached new heights in psychological maturity

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Jason Reed / Reuters

President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 5, 2012.

Barack Obama’s masterful speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) revealed more than his growing comfort with his own power and with the gravitas of leading the most powerful nation on earth. Moving him forcefully into the center stage of world diplomacy without relinquishing his familiar message of bipartisanship, responsibility, and a never-ending quest to improve the lot of nations, Obama’s speech was the latest in a series of behaviors that revealed a kind of psychological maturity not seen on a presidential level in recent memory.

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg published in the Atlantic two days before the speech, Obama revealed an attitude that only someone feeling powerful and confident could hold, dismissing war as a distraction: “At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally [Syria] is on the ropes,” he said, “do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?”  Obama’s ability to put “war talk” in its place was not only a harbinger of his AIPAC speech but also showed his clear appreciation of the literal power of language. At AIPAC, he used words as genuine weapons to confront Israel (and some American Republicans) about the danger of loose talk – almost scolding them. He asserted Presidential power in new ways, not just by urging people to search for common ground, but by setting limits.

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At a New York fundraiser the night before the Atlantic interview was published, Obama dealt with a heckler with comparable confidence. To the woman who interrupted his comments on foreign policy to yell, “Use your leadership! No war in Iran!,”  Obama calmly responded, “Nobody’s announced a war, young lady. You’re jumping the gun a little bit.”  He then turned on his smile that was at once affectionate and slightly condescending. He not only understood her passion but was able metabolize her cry for calm leadership to quell her fears the way a parent does with the outburst of an impatient or frightened child.

Maturity is revealed in one’s capacity to put things in perspective, to react to immediate stimuli while keeping the long view or bigger picture clearly in mind. In his speech before a potentially suspicious AIPAC, and with his dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Obama linked his maturity to an explicit public strategy in a manner that illustrates how his personal growth is informing and expanding his presidential authority and effectiveness.

Some of the notes Obama sounded were familiar: defending his record of support for Israel; asserting his opposition to nuclear weapons for Iran under any circumstances, far stronger than  a policy of containment; and reminding his audience that American support for Israel is bipartisan – continuing his insistence on getting bipartisanship into virtually every speech he makes, driven by his need to push for disparate parts of his own internal world to find ways to connect and get along. But beyond the predictable elements of his speech, he did two other things psychologically astute and adept.

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First, he announced that he was planning to invite Shimon Peres to the White House this spring to give him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By this time, Obama had already found ways for Peres to support him through an arranged tour to speak directly with American Jewish leaders – whether on numerous television appearances or directly with Hollywood mogul Stephen Spielberg. Peres virtually called Obama the greatest ally Israel has ever had. This maneuver also set up a united front to deal with a potentially belligerent Netanyahu who reportedly was planning to issue an ultimatum to Obama demanding explicit US support if Israel bombs Iran.

Secondly, in addition to putting Netanyahu into a kind of corner, Obama also empathized with him. He did this by using the technique of allying himself with Netanyahu’s narcissism – empathizing with the burdens of being responsible for the well-being of a nation that has already been attacked and could be attacked again. The positive spin worked – at least according to the Jerusalem Post, which reported that Netanyahu’s reaction was itself extremely positive. On the next day, Netanyahu sounded like an echo of Bush using WMDs to strike fear into a now lukewarm AIPAC audience. And while Obama left him his dignity, Netanyahu was unable to galvanize massive AIPAC support for preemptive war.

Finally, President Obama touchingly said that the first and most powerful memories he will carry with him upon leaving the Presidency are the maimed soldiers, and the faces of families who have lost loved ones forever. Presenting himself as a man of peace and principle, Obama was able to bring together in the AIPAC speech the many forces at play both in the Middle East and in his own inner world, forces that allow different elements of self, as well as different nations, to find common ground and purpose in life.

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