Obama’s momentum

OK, Democrats, don’t look now but President Obama is enjoying his third good week in a row.

With healthcare reform behind him and the scars to prove it, Obama is focused on his leadership on the world stage, managing not only to change the subject but to put some points on the board with a surprise trip to Afghanistan, an arms agreement with Russia and a gathering of 47 world leaders in the nation’s capital for a historic nuclear weapons summit.

After months in the political dumps — fighting Republican opponents as well as Democrats to pass healthcare reform, losing his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate with his party’s embarrassing loss to Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and trying, unsuccessfully, to manage tensions with Russia, China and Israel — Obama seems to have bought himself a break.

It has been awhile since Obama looked like a winner, and looking like one isn’t the same as being one. His approval ratings hit a record low in the Gallup poll this week, dipping to 45 percent, lower than President Clinton’s ratings in 1994 when a GOP rout wiped Democrats from power, and he remains unpopular in most of the critical swing districts where control of Congress will be decided this fall.

But on a day when first lady Michelle Obama made a surprise trip to Haiti, the president concluded the largest international meeting ever held in Washington on a single issue, the critical threat of loose nukes reaching terrorist groups. Fourteen months into office, Obama, who has earned majority public approval for his handling of the two wars he inherited from President George W. Bush, has turned to his own foreign policy agenda of nonproliferation and the nuclear terror threat. He called the goal of safeguarding the world’s nuclear stockpile “bold and pragmatic” and took credit for helping reach agreement on the biggest threat to our national and global security. Obama said summit participants arrived with differing perspectives but that, over dinner and throughout the day of meetings, “we developed a shared understanding of the risk.”

In the end, the administration came away with little more than pledges from Mexico, Canada, Chile, Ukraine, Vietnam and Kazakhstan to shelve some highly enriched uranium. And critics are correct that the summit yielded a non-binding communiqué, gave Pakistan a free pass and failed to produce any significant progress on sanctions for Iran. After Obama’s meeting with China President Hu Jintao, the Chinese remained intentionally vague about sanctions, promising far more work ahead on the road to a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Yet the summit gave Obama an opportunity to exhibit American leadership on a key security issue, to press leaders from several countries about Iran and even to be photographed looking chummy among world leaders he is criticized for lacking relationships with.

Ultimately, this president and his team appreciate the value of symbols, images, optics and even the artful distraction. The healthcare reform summit the president conducted at Blair House on Jan. 25, privately considered a waste of time by many Democrats, was later described by White House officials not as a way to attract GOP support but as a means of diverting attention from the Congress, where leaders were desperately hunting for votes.

Obama, known for his refusal to get caught up in any moment, good or bad, also trusts that Americans want to see their president hard at work on seemingly intractable problems. A beginning itself, he said, is progress. “Progress is going to be measured not in days, not in weeks. It’s going to take time. And progress will be halting.”

After a rough first year in office, Obama knows sometimes the subject needs changing and that halting progress is better than none at all.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.