Barack Obama is a popular president.
With an average approval rating of 61 percent in seven polls taken this month, according to CNN’s Poll of Polls, Obama is more popular than George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan was at this point in his presidency.
But Obama needs to spend some of that capital, using his personal popularity to pump up support for his more controversial policy initiatives — especially healthcare and energy reform.
And there is some evidence that he is willing to do so.
Unfortunately, the world has a way of intruding — and of defining the discussion.
So it was that, at a presidential press conference where the president wanted and needed to get a message out about domestic policy, he found himself answering a lot of questions about the crisis that has developed in Iran following that country’s presidential vote.
Obama, who has taken criticism for being too soft and diplomatic in his response to evidence of election fraud and images of a brutal crackdown on democracy demonstrators, was clearer in his language than at any time since the Iranian crisis developed.
The United States must, the president said, “bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.”
But Obama did not merely bear witness.
More bluntly than at any point yet, Obama decried the violence.
“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the last few days,” he declared. “I strongly condemn these unjust actions.”
Even that may not have been so bold a statement as Obama’s Republican critics have been calling for — and that some European leaders have issued. But the president’s other statements on the crisis offered a reminder of the tightrope the president is walking with regard to Iran.
Because of the US invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and because the Bush-Cheney administration so frequently poked at Iran — rhetorically and practically — the United States is seen as a manipulative player in the region.
So even as he spoke of bearing witness, Obama found himself in the delicate position of denying as “patently false and absurd” claims by some players in Iran that the United States is “instigating protests” on the streets of Tehren.
The accusations, Obama pointedly declared at his midday news conference, “are an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran’s borders.”
“This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran,” said the president, reaffirming the position he has maintained since before the Iranian election. “This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they — and only they — will choose.”
The president left no doubt of his sentiment with regard to Iran’s future: “There is a peaceful path… to legitimacy… we hope they take it.”
Obama said Iran’s “faith, sovereignty and traditions” can be respected while at the same time the country’s government can and should be prodded to respect “international norms and principles” regarding violence and the right of peaceful dissent.
Those will be the takeaway lines from today, and that is as it should be — even as it should be remembered that the president made one of his strongest statements yet with regard to the necessity of domestic reform: “When it comes to healthcare, the status quo is unsustainable. Reform is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”
Obama, like any president, must always struggle with the domestic-foreign balance. This day, appropriately, the weight on his shoulders was that of the world. And, as one of those who has prodded him to be more outspoken and blunt in his remarks regarding Iran, I am reassured that he is on the tightrope and walking it well.