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Fear of Obama's Second Term Overblown, Says Expert

Amb. Yoram Ettinger: president is always weaker in second term; Israel needs to work more with Congress.
By Gil Ronen
First Publish: 9/25/2012, 12:08 PM

Obama near Oval Office
Obama near Oval Office
Reuters

Former Israeli delegate for Congressional matters in Washington and a top expert on relations with the U.S., Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger, thinks Israeli fears of a hostile second term Obama presidency are overblown.

In an interview with Arutz Sheva, Ettinger explained that contrary to popular perception, "The bottom line is that a second term president is always weaker than a first term president. This is true for all second term American presidents other than one – James Monroe. A second term president becomes less and less relevant for both chambers of Congress from the day of his reelection. This this was true for Clinton's second term, Reagan's second term, as well as Nixon's, Lyndon B. Johnson's, Eisenhower's etc."

"When it comes to the possibility of President Obama winning reelection – whatever he may try to do, he will need the support of Congress, and if Israel cultivates its ties with the legislature and leverages the immense goodwill toward it on Capitol Hill, then Obama will be severely constrained a far as any possible negative initiatives vis–a-vis Israel."

Arutz Sheva: What about the famous statement by Obama to Russia's Medvedev, in which he said "This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility"? Doesn't that indicate Israel may be facing a big problem during Obama's second term?

YE: "It all depends on whether Congress goes along or if Congress remains passive. Congress usually prefers for the president to deal with national security and international issues, allowing Congress to deal with the domestic arena, which is more central for congressmen's reelection efforts.

"However, the legislature has muscle to stop and constrain a president, to force a president to make a U-turn and also to initiate national security and international relations policy.

"Congress does that when it feels that the president has betrayed the trust of the American people. When congressmen feel that the president assumes that he is omnipotent and acts against the interest of their constituents.

"In Israel's case, the support is bipartisan; it is solid in a very rare fashion, because Israel is very popular on the congressional agenda on both sides of the aisle.

"It requires, however, the Israeli government to be in touch with the American democracy and stop looking at the legislature as supporting actor, deluding itself that when it comes to national security and foreign policy the president calls the shots. This is contrary to the Constitution and to the track record of the United States.

"We saw this when the Bush Sr. / James Baker administration, the worst thus far in terms of relations with Israel – when they vilified Yitzchak Shamir, painting him as anti-peace, Congress initiated legislation extending U.S.-Israel cooperation in an unprecedented manner and each item was passed in defiance of Bush Sr. and Baker, who threatened veto retribution etcetera, but they were rolled over by Congress. 

"The same applied when [Sen. Henry] 'Scoop' Jackson initiated the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which was responsible for the aliyah of over one million people to Israel. It was passed despite opposition by the administration and even some objections by the Israeli government."

Arutz Sheva: What about a scenario in which the UN Security Council drafts an anti-Israel resolution and the U.S. refuses to veto it?

YE: Even last February, when the U.S. cast a veto on an Arab resolution at the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace, it was because Democrats on Capitol Hill made clear they would not tolerate less than a veto. If it had been left up to the Obama-Clinton-Susan Rice team, there probably would not have been a veto. It boils down to Israel leveraging the congressional muscle, or relegating Congress to a secondary role. By mistreating Congress as a second-rate arm of government, Jerusalem, in a way, slaps the face of American democracy.

"When we hear that Jerusalem should not work behind the back of the White House – any such claim is divorced from the American political scene. Any freshman lobbyist knows that the first and foremost place to advance your agenda is Congress."

Arutz Sheva: and this still holds true for a second term president?

YE: "Absolutely. The reason second term presidents are inherently weaker than the first term presidents is that the political life expectancy of a legislator is remarkably different from that of presidents. Presidents run every four years, so supposedly a second term president doesn’t need anyone anymore, but that is precisely the source of his vulnerability.

"Congressmen, and especially legislators from his party, know he thinks he's omnipotent and that he cares less about them. They run every two years, and every two years, everyone on Capitol Hill is involved in the races except for the president. The legislators are not going to sacrifice their own political future on the altar of the president's agenda. This creates a rift that weakens the president who needs the legislature to push his agenda through

Arutz Sheva: Surely Netanyahu, who received so many standing ovations in Congress, is aware of all this?

YE: "Never assume anything… Standing ovations are great, but the first misunderstanding is to assume that Capitol Hill is a place for public diplomacy. Capitol Hill is the place for legislation. To have public diplomacy as the overriding and only item on the speech is a mistake. When you speak with House members or Senators you have to leave behind you certain legislative ideas. If you don't, then you have missed an opportunity."