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Compare and Contrast

October 9, 2009

Compare and Contrast

Noah Pollak Web Exclusive | 8 Oct. 2009

As we wend our way through the first year of the Obama administration, it is hard not to notice a stark contrast in style between the American president and another democratic leader who has been in power for almost the same amount of time: Binyamin Netanyahu. The political trajectories of the two men have been almost perfectly opposite. Obama started off his presidency blessed by great popularity only to see his fortunes plummet, while Netanyahu began under a cloud of public uncertainty and suspicion yet today enjoys healthy public-approval numbers. More than anything else, the leadership styles of the two men explain their divergent fortunes.

The most obvious difference between the two is in the level of public exposure that each has pursued. Obama seeks to place himself in the headlines of newspapers and to lead the television news broadcasts on a daily basis, achieving an omnipresence unprecedented in American politics. He has given scores of speeches, each heralded to be of great consequence to the nation and the world. He has staked much of his presidential power on the sheer force of his personality, giving little consideration to the sustainability of such a strategy or whether so much narcissistic pageantry is becoming to a national leader. His public pronouncements are astonishingly self-absorbed: to take one example, in their speeches to the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen, the First Couple used the first-person pronoun 70 times in 89 sentences.

Obama’s permanent publicity blitz has rendered his pronouncements banal and is helping to create an impression that he is all talk, no results. Who can recall with any precision what the president says from one day to the next? Why bother trying when another speech is moments away? CBS News’ White House correspondent noted on July 13 that Obama had already delivered his 200th speech — on his 177th day in office.

Netanyahu has taken a completely different approach. He goes days without making public statements, often only commenting on events at his weekly cabinet meeting, and even so, by making the tersest of remarks. His response to the Goldstone Commission report was delivered without fanfare in a cabinet meeting and consisted in its entirety of a 330-word statement. Netanyahu has given only two major speeches during his premiership: the June address at Bar-Ilan University, where he rebutted Obama’s Cairo speech and laid out Israel’s terms for the peace process; and his UN General Assembly speech, where he shamed the “international community” for its indulgence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Netanyahu doesn’t say a lot, and he most certainly never talks about himself — but when he does speak, his people and the wider world know that his words are a reflection not of fleeting political calculation but of his fundamental beliefs. One of the ways Netanyahu has won the respect of a skeptical electorate is by cultivating an aura of seriousness and gravity through the scarceness of his presence on the public stage.

Another major difference is each man’s conception of his own mandate. Obama appears to believe that the 52.9 percent of the vote he earned in 2008 means that the American people wish for him to undertake a dramatic transformation of their society, and he has joined this faith in the singularity of his mandate with the now famous adage that you never let a crisis go to waste. He never seems to have worried that the people would notice he was trying to use the recession to advance policies that had nothing to do with the causes of the recession, thus creating for himself a reputation of cynicism and dishonesty.

In Netanyahu’s case, his governing coalition comprises 74 of 120 Knesset seats, or 61.6 percent of the electorate — and the shift from Left to Right signified by the Israeli election is far more substantial than the shift from Right to Left signified by the American one. Yet Netanyahu understood that his first months as prime minister would best be spent establishing his reputation as a careful and trustworthy leader. His policy initiatives have attempted to articulate and strengthen the Israeli consensus, not force a new paradigm on it. Despite his reputation, repeated mantra-like in press coverage, that he is a “hard-line” leader, Netanyahu has compromised in key ways. He endorsed Palestinian statehood in his Bar-Ilan speech, unprecedented for a Likud leader, and has restricted settlement activity in the West Bank and agreed to major reductions in roadblocks, checkpoints, and the like. The political fallout from Netanyahu’s major domestic failure — his land-reform initiative — was isolated because the Israeli public trusted him on a range of other issues. Well into his first year in office, his public approval numbers (and the Likud’s prospective share of Knesset seats) have been steadily increasing. Obama, by contrast, has suffered blow after blow in the court of public opinion as increasing numbers of voters become fearful of the next product of his outsized ambition.

And Obama surely has been trying to do a lot. A recent New York Times profile noted “Mr. Obama’s do-everything-at-once strategy,” in which a major goal is to always “put points on the board.” In pursuit of all those points, Obama has made numerous grand declarations that set himself up for highly public failures. The loss of some of his initiatives and his inability to push forward on all of them at once have resulted in his agenda becoming bogged down, scattered, and incoherent. Netanyahu’s pursuit of modest adjustments and gradual change has spared him from such embarrassment.

These two drastically different styles can be seen in the approach to diplomacy the two leaders have pursued. On the international stage, Obama appears either dogmatic (with Israel), obsequious (with Russia), or indecisive (on Iran and Afghanistan). All this nuance was supposed to earn him a great deal of soft-power capital, but instead it is simply attracting unflattering media attention and the contempt of foreign leaders. Netanyahu, on the other hand, cultivates a low-key ambiguity that keeps his options open. In their confrontation over Israeli settlements, Obama rushed out of the gates forcefully demanding a settlement freeze that included Jerusalem. Netanyahu publicly rejected the Jerusalem demand but otherwise maintained a posture of openness to negotiation and gainsaid claims of a rift between the two allies. In the end, Obama was forced to quietly retreat from his noisy opening position. Because Netanyahu had never committed himself to any precise outcome, he would have been spared such humiliation whichever decision had he made.

Finally, there is the matter of partisanship. Netanyahu’s coalition includes the leftist Labor party, which holds the defense ministry, arguably the most important office besides the prime minister’s, and Netanyahu has repeatedly endorsed policies at odds with Likud doctrine. Obama has not held a meeting with congressional Republicans on his flagship health-care initiative in more than four months. Certainly some of this can be attributed to the requirements of the Israeli parliamentary system and to the Democrats’ large majorities in the House and Senate; but much of it comes down to leadership, with Obama’s divide-and-conquer approach leaving him unable to co-opt opponents but giving his critics, unified by their exclusion, an easy target to fixate on. Netanyahu’s policy flexibility combined with his inclusion of an important left-wing faction in his coalition has left his detractors without a solid handle to grasp, and because of this, his domestic opponents have been largely neutralized. When was the last time Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition, was heard from, much less made headlines?

The basic political challenge for democratic leaders is to advance their agenda while safeguarding their popularity. According to Rasmussen, when President Obama assumed office, he had a 65 percent public-approval rating. Today that number stands at around 50 percent — but approval of his policies poll far lower, and the ratio of those who strongly approve of him versus those who strongly disapprove has plummeted by more than 35 points. Netanyahu has experienced the opposite. His public-approval numbers were below 33 percent when he took office but had climbed to 49 percent by July and were recently at 65 percent, with a mere 4 percent saying they strongly disapprove of his performance. This should give some evidence of whether democratic publics are more comfortable in times of uncertainty with leaders who govern with firmness and modesty as opposed to those who govern through shock and awe.

About the Author

Noah Pollak is a graduate student at Yale University.

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