President Barack Obama used his speech to the United Nations today to shore up faltering support among domestic groups, including feminists, environmentalists, gays and lesbians, as well as Jews and opponents of the war in Iraq.
The speech “definitely had strong political overtones for a domestic audience,” said former Obama-booster David Gergen, director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. Obama’s discussion of foreign policy in the Middle East, he said, was passive and devoid of any new proposals or pressure, he added.
Obama’s foreign-policy caution was illustrated by his repeated assertion that “peace is hard,” and his lack of sweeping promises common in his earlier speeches. “Conflict and repression will endure so long as some people refuse to do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” he said, in a partial flub of the Biblical maxim. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
In his mid-morning speech at the United Nation’s Turtle Bay headquarters, Obama devoted roughly 900 words of his 4,400-word speech to the intensified Palestinian effort to create a state via a vote at the United Nations while bypassing peace negotiations with Israel. He denounced the effort, saying “ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians — not us — who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: On borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem.”
This is a rhetorical reversal by Obama, who spurred the Palestinian effort by pushing Israeli leaders — but not Palestinian leaders — for concessions in 2010 and 2011, say Obama’s critics, including former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.
Obama’s pressure on Israel also drove down his support among Democratic-aligned Jewish voters, and helped Republican Bob Turner win a Sept. 14 election in New York city, said Obama’s critics. “That was a direct rebuke to the Palestinian leadership,“ and it will be appreciated in Israel, David Horowitz, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post, told MSNBC’s viewers.
Towards the end of his speech, Obama also gave a rushed shout-out to gay and lesbian voters. They comprise roughly 4 percent of the U.S. electorate, and Democrats typically win 75 percent of their votes. That support may have sagged, however, along with the economy. “No country should deny people their rights of free speech and religion … [or] because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere,” he said.
Obama stumbled through this section, perhaps because the version sent to reporters just before the speech did not include the comments about speech and religion.
Obama also made sure to revive talk of global warming. ”To preserve our planet, we must not put off the action that climate change demands … That is what our commitment to the next generation demands.” Currently, U.S. environmental groups are pushing Obama to stop construction of the XL Pipeline, which would be built by U.S. workers and would supply carry carbon-heavy oil from Canada to American consumers. So far, Obama seems set to approve the job-boosting pipeline, despite the likely backlash from environmentalists.
Obama also reiterated his support for feminists’ goals during the speech: “No country can realize its potential if half its population cannot reach theirs. This week, the United States signed a new Declaration on Women’s Participation. Next year, we should each announce the steps we are taking to break down economic and political barriers that stand in the way of women and girls. That is what our commitment to human progress demands,” he declared. So far, Obama’s domestic support among feminists remains high.
On Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama continued his emphasis on the United State’s departure from the countries.
The Iraq campaign became intensely unpopular with progressives, who declared it a “war for oil.” As a candidate, Obama promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Progressives are a critical bloc for Obama’s 2012 campaign, because they provide many of his campaign’s volunteers and boosters.
“Today, we have set a new direction … When I took office, roughly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “By the end of this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will continue to decline. This is critical to the sovereignty of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the strength of the United States as we build our nation at home,” he said, before devoting almost 800 words to praising Arabs who have removed dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, and who are protesting against autocrats in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.
“America does not expect to agree with every party or person who expresses themselves politically,” Obama said. “But we will always stand up for the universal rights that were embraced by this [U.N.] Assembly … elections that are free and fair; governance that is transparent and accountable; respect for the rights of women and minorities; and justice that is equal and fair.”
Obama applauded the Libyan uprising against its dictator, in which rag-tag rebels were critically aided by his decision to support them with U.S. and European weaponry and intelligence. “This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security; individuals claiming their rights,” he said.
For Iraq’s government, however, he promised civil, but not military support, despite continued Iranian subversion. “The United States will continue to support those nations that transition to democracy — with greater trade and investment, so that freedom is followed by opportunity. We will pursue a deeper engagement with governments, but also civil society — students and entrepreneurs; political parties and the press.”
Notably, Obama did not set a number for the troops that will stay in Iraq to support Iraq’s democratic government.
U.S. military officials want to keep more than 10,000 soldiers for training, advice and support, but White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, are pushing for a force of 3,000 troops. That low number might be too few to accomplish anything in the face of continued Iranian-funded terror attacks against U.S. bases and convoys.