Obama's Speeches Setting High Bar for Results

By Weisman & Meckler, Wall Street Journal - June 8, 2009

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama returned home from abroad Sunday to find that his own oratory laying out an ever-more-ambitious agenda, both in foreign and domestic policy, is ratcheting up demands for concrete achievements.

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President Barack Obama toured the Sphinx and pyramids outside Cairo on Thursday with Egyptian antiquities expert Zahi Hawass.

"Expectations are rising with every speech," said Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, who was consulted by White House aides on the president's speech to Muslims in Cairo on Thursday. "And the more issues you articulate, the more pressure you create to produce actual policies and achievements."

While the president is popular among many Europeans, he returned from his second trip to Europe with little more progress on key issues than he achieved during his first trip there in April, including over committing additional troops for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

White House officials have said the president's address to the Muslim world has been overwhelmingly positive -- among Arabs and beyond. Mr. Telhami said Mr. Obama's even-handed, tough assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and his promises of progress have grabbed the region's attention and stimulated constructive debate.

But it also has raised the pressure on the administration to carry through, not only on peace initiatives but also on the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, the closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the enforcement of a ban on torture.

White House aides said they hoped Mr. Obama's Cairo speech would help decrease tensions with the region and win Arab government support for U.S. priorities, notably resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Obama wants Arab governments to help pressure Palestinians to reach a peace deal, a point he pressed in public and in private meetings with the president of Egypt and king of Saudi Arabia.

In the longer term, Mr. Obama hopes the speech could reduce some of the influence among Muslim youths of Islamic extremists, who use hatred of the U.S. as a recruiting tool, his aides said.

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Mr. Obama with, from left, Britain's Prince Charles, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the 65th anniversary ceremony of D-Day in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, Saturday.

"We were able to reach the target audience we had wanted to reach, namely young Muslims in communities throughout the world, to get them to take another look at the United States," said Denis McDonough, deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications.

The president is facing a challenge to the key breakthrough from the April summit of the Group of 20 economic powers. Last week, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to pull a war-spending bill from the House floor over objections to a measure that would provide billions of dollars to the International Monetary Fund. The G-20 had pledged that assistance at the London summit.

A failure to secure the U.S. end of that promise would be a major embarrassment for Mr. Obama ahead of the Group of Eight summit July 8, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and an opponent of the IMF funding.

Meanwhile, global-warming legislation has passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee but will need a heavy push to get moving in the Senate. For now, the president is focusing on health care. Saturday, Mr. Obama publicly pressed the case for quick action on a national plan to make health-insurance coverage nearly universal while bringing down costs.

Regaining the high ground on the budget issue is critical, as the deficit soars toward $2 trillion, aides said. For health-care legislation to pass this year, White House officials said, a plan must be passed out of Senate committees by the end of this month and a legislative package passed out of both houses of Congress before August.

In bilateral meetings in Europe, Mr. Obama and his French and German counterparts discussed issues from climate change to the financial crisis that could be a barometer of future U.S.-European cooperation.

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Mr. Obama with, from left, governor of Saxony Stanislaw Tillich, bishop Jochen Bohl and German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured Dresden's Frauenkirche on Friday.

The leaders appeared to enjoy consensus on the approach to Mideast peace talks, North Korea and Iran. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had personally pressed the U.S.'s offer to work with Tehran on improving ties with the Iranian foreign secretary in "very frank and open terms," telling him it is important that he "take the hand outstretched by President Obama."

But at a joint news conference, Messrs. Sarkozy and Obama spoke openly about their disagreement over whether Turkey should be admitted to the European Union.

In Germany, tension was apparent regarding the nations' differing approaches to the economic crisis. "We also obviously debated the situation on world markets," Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a news conference. "We exchanged views on the different stimulus programs that we pursue in our countries."

She added that Germany is closely monitoring the president's push for legislation to address climate change.

The issue of what to do with detainees at Guantanamo also came up. The U.S. hopes European countries will take some of the detainees, but in Germany, Mr. Obama said of his counterpart: "We have not asked her for hard commitments, and she has not given us any hard commitments beyond having a serious discussion about are there ways that we can solve this problem."

Mr. Obama's July trip to Moscow also is expected to have major ramifications for a range of global issues. The White House has moved to damp tensions with Moscow by accelerating nuclear-disarmament talks with President Dmitry Medvedev's government and indicating that the U.S. could slow the deployment of a missile-defense shield in Europe. But it remains uncertain whether Mr. Obama's moves would result in greater cooperation from Russia on U.S. foreign-policy priorities, such as restraining Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs.

Write to Jonathan Weisman at and Laura Meckler at

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