Image: Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, Ban Ki-moon
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Barack Obama, seen here presiding over  a meeting of the U.N.  Security Council on Thursday, is hoping for a big-time political win to bolster his presidency.
By AP White House Correspondent
updated 9/24/2009 5:28:50 PM ET 2009-09-24T21:28:50

When President Barack Obama said the United Nations had reached "a pivotal moment," he could just as well have been referring to his own presidency.

Both on the world stage and at home, Obama keeps asking for more, politely but firmly. But he's still had no signature win, not the kind that would set off a chain reaction of other victories.

For the U.N., Obama is seeking global cooperation to confront the challenges of bloody conflicts, a warming planet, economic deprivation and dangerous weapons proliferation. For his presidency, he's seeking the kind of high-fiving, powerful victory that a major health care overhaul would represent.

Power begets power, and success begets success, and no one knows this better than Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. "In politics, power is not static," he said in an interview Wednesday with PBS' Charlie Rose. "As you use it, if you're successful, it accumulates to achieve other goals."

Easier said than done, though Thursday's Security Council approval of a resolution embracing Obama's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons was a plus. So was the three-way Mideast leaders' meeting he engineered and led.

Here in New York this week, Obama also managed to sharpen the focus of his diplomatic doctrine for success.

Will talk lead to results?
The nation and world have watched his foreign policy philosophy and style unfold for months, on foreign trips and through major speeches. There were addresses on terrorist interrogations at the National Archives, on a nuclear-free world in Prague, on reaching out to Muslims from Cairo.

Still, it somehow all clicked more clearly as Obama stood at the podium in the General Assembly's cavernous, packed hall Wednesday and made the case for urgent cooperation among nations.

His themes:

  • America is out of the bullying business. It knows the world's beefs with the U.S., and the Obama administration is working to address them, a nice I-hear-you touch. And going forward, the U.S. will emphasize cooperation over a go-it-alone attitude, letting the credit for any progress flow where it may. In other words, we may still be the world's superpower — no denying that — but we're going to act like we're just one of the guys.
  • Americans are impatient, and you should be, too. The problems are urgent and everyone must do his part — no shirkers allowed.
  • No whining, either. Don't waste time blaming others, like, say, the United States, or making excuses. And if you want more rights than you feel you have, beware — they come with responsibilities.
  • Last, but far from least in Obamaland, don't make the perfect the enemy of the good. Be willing to give away more than you want, or nothing will get done. Obama told Palestinians just that this week, meaning they shouldn't draw lines in the sand over Jewish settlement expansion on land they want for a state. He also says it all the time to Democrats in Congress over the health care bill.

But talk is talk, and results are another thing.

List of successes
Obama has had successes, a fairly long list, actually, for a relatively short time in office.

Video: From Pittsburgh, Obamas play host to the world He got a massive economic stimulus approved quickly by Congress. He oversaw a breathtaking range of federal interventions to calm markets, open up credit and arrest economic freefall. He got a Security Council resolution against North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Even his popularity is an accomplishment of a sort, as it appears to reflect better standing in the world for the U.S.

Just this week, Obama got encouraging signs from Russia that it might shift position and support tougher sanctions on Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. He got Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the same room, with a handshake even.

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But none of his victories has been big-time enough to create game-changing momentum.

It was a pretty easy lift to get Thursday's Security Council resolution: calling for a nuclear-free world is fairly popular. The hard part is clearing the hurdles to move toward that reality, such as Senate ratification of the same nuclear test ban treaty it rejected a decade ago.

And statements by Israeli and Palestinian leaders after Tuesday's three-way sitdown made clear how very far they are from making progress.

What could likely qualify as a foreign policy show-me moment? Agreement from Iran to stop enriching uranium. Tough sanctions by the U.S. and its allies if the Iranians won't comply. Resumption of Mideast peace talks.

Meantime, Obama is asking and asking and mostly being denied.

Common ground
European allies won't send significantly more troops into the toughest fighting in Afghanistan. Israel rebuffed Obama's demand that it stop settlement expansion, and Arab leaders won't make conciliatory moves toward Israel. Few nations are taking detainees from the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay prison. India and China are balking at tough climate requirements, and Obama's effort to get a climate bill through the U.S. Congress is stalled.

"I'm not saying he's naive," said Jon Alterman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But governments don't do things because they're in the world's interests. Governments often don't even do things because they're in their people's interests. Many times, governments do things because it's in the government's interest."

So getting to common ground, and from there to action, can be a very long process.

"We never came in under the impression that years of these challenges would be wiped away in only a matter of months," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "The president has invested a lot of time and energy in these challenges, and understands it's going to take some time."

And Obama showed in his presidential campaign that he can prevail against odds over the long term.

But there is one thing Emanuel did not mention about the dynamics of power. When you use it to reach for the stars, as Obama has done in so many areas at once, and are not successful, the fall can be very far. Momentum flows to the opponents and your credibility the next time around is pretty low.

Jennifer Loven has been covering the White House for The Associated Press since 2002.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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