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This week, the world is watching Obama

As the president steps before the United Nations for the first time -- then meets with G-20 counterparts -- he sees a chance to prove himself at home.

September 21, 2009|Christi Parsons and Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — President Obama takes the world stage this week amid an array of international challenges that have bedeviled American presidents for decades, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the drive of "rogue" nations toward nuclear power and uncertainty in the U.S. relationship with Russia.

It's enough to make his domestic agenda, be it healthcare or the economy, look simple.

But the president does not see those two arenas as distinct. As Obama steps to the podium of the United Nations for the first time Tuesday, the White House is deeply mindful of the interconnections between his international and domestic agendas -- and of the potential for his performance on the global stage to strengthen his position at home.

Underscoring the broad agenda before him this week, Obama fielded questions on a string of news programs Sunday, discussing a wide variety of issues domestic and foreign.

Obama's appearances at the U.N. meetings in New York, and with Group of 20 leaders later this week in Pittsburgh, offer him a "unique opportunity" to burnish his image as an effective and commanding leader, said a White House official who asked not to be named in order to speak freely. If Obama does this successfully, the White House hopes it could help the president as he wrestles for the confidence of an American public that is still deeply divided over his healthcare legislation.

Most Democratic lawmakers can be counted on to support an overhaul of the U.S. health insurance system, but the more conservative ones need to know they have a strong president who can help Democrats win reelection if they vote with him on this issue.

The principle potentially works in reverse too: A global audience wants to know whether the president is firmly in charge back home.

"To a great degree, leaders around the world are watching what happens in the healthcare debate to see: Is this a president who can firmly lead and is firmly in command? Or is this a president who can be defied with impunity?" said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Obama's emphasis during the week, which includes a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, will be on the need for countries to work together on the pressing issues that threaten their interests.

Obama has already cast the proceedings in a positive light by persuading Palestinian and Israeli leaders to sit down Tuesday for a three-way meeting, in which they had been reluctant to take part. None of the parties indicated that their attendance should be taken as an agreement to resume peace talks, but negotiators had been unable in the last few weeks even to secure an agreement for a meeting.

Still, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators appear to remain far apart. And if a resumption of talks remains distant, it will raise questions about Obama's controversial strategy of pushing Israel for a freeze on expanding West Bank settlements.

Some Israeli leaders and pro-Israel lawmakers in the United States, including many in Obama's party, have been criticizing his policy on settlements for weeks.

The U.N. complex will also be the setting for meetings touching on concerns over Iran's drive to enrich uranium, which Tehran says would supply domestic energy but which the West fears would provide the makings of bombs.

Administration officials are trying to persuade other key countries, including Russia and China, to join in imposing additional economic sanctions.

The administration could see some progress on this front due to Obama's decision to overhaul Bush administration plans to build a missile defense system in Europe. Despite U.S. assurances that the shield was meant to protect American allies from long-range Iranian missiles, the Russians believed the system was designed to hinder their military.

In the days since Obama in effect scrapped the plan, Russian officials have remained vague about whether they might become more cooperative on the Iran nuclear issue.

On Wednesday, the president has a one-on-one meeting scheduled with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. That presents another opportunity for Obama to look strong, should he secure new cooperation from Russia. But it also raises a chance that Obama will leave without foreign policy gains.

On CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Obama said he did not take the missile shield off the table in a quid pro quo arrangement to secure Russian cooperation on Iran. Nevertheless, he mentioned Russian assistance as a goal.

"If the byproduct of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or nuclear development in Iran," he said, "then that's a bonus."

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