By Sam Youngman and Ian Swanson - 12/21/10 11:00 AM EST
President Obama is making a final push to secure the votes for an arms treaty that stands not just as a political goal but a highly personal one.
The president needs nine Republican votes to win the two-thirds Senate majority to ratify the New START Treaty with Russia, and Obama has continued to call Republican senators to bring them on board, according to the White House.
Ratification would be the crowning achievement for Obama in a post-election session that has already seen passage of an $858 billion tax package and the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law banning openly gay and lesbian military service members.
Yet to Obama, ratification of the arms treaty might be even more important.
“It's personal, but it's far greater than that,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday at his daily briefing.
Obama has long envisioned nuclear nonproliferation efforts as a part of his future legacy, and one of his first moves after being elected to the Senate in 2004 was to seek out Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) to advance the cause of nuclear nonproliferation.
Just months into his presidency, Obama promised to work for a world “without nuclear weapons,” a pledge that led the Norwegian Nobel Committee to honor him with the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year after Obama took office.
“The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations,” the committee said in explaining its decision.
Obama seemed chagrined by the decision, but in attending the ceremony to pick up the prize, he characterized the selection as a “call to action.”
In his 2009 speech, Obama called the massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russia “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.”
Obama then pledged to unite the world behind a four-year goal to secure all loose nuclear material.
About a year after making the pledge for a nuclear-free world, Obama signed with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev a treaty that represents the first significant arms reduction agreement between the U.S. and Russia in decades.
“Today is an important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation, and for U.S.-Russia relations,” Obama said at the time.
Much of Obama’s energy on foreign policy over the past two years has been dedicated to reducing arms.
In April, Obama hosted representatives of 47 countries for talks on an agreement to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
“The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said at the time.
One month later, Obama revealed the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in a stunning statement in favor of transparency.
Obama has spent countless time abroad discussing his goals of reducing nuclear weapons and working within international frameworks to achieve those goals.
Obama’s efforts in the last week to move the treaty also speak to its importance to him. Over the weekend, partly in an effort to soothe the worries of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his rival in the 2008 presidential race, Obama issued a letter explaining that the treaty would not place any limits on a U.S. missile defense system.
Gibbs said the issue is personal for Obama not because of his image, but because of the importance of reducing weapons and securing a system for verifying weapons systems with Russia.
“I think, though, the president is less concerned with his legacy and that sort of thing than he is with, first and foremost, the reduction of the risk — both the risk of those weapons falling into the hands of somebody that seeks to do great harm to millions of innocent victims,” Gibbs said.
After “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed on Saturday, Obama did not appear on camera for a statement, and some in the media wondered why.
“He, I think, was busy probably in the Oval Office working on calls on START,” said Gibbs.
The NBA-loving president even skipped a game Saturday at Washington’s Verizon Center between the Wizards and LeBron James’s Miami Heat after Secret Service agents had done some initial work ahead of a possible Obama night out.