The Note, 4/6/2009: Word Matters -- World’s tests are opening to shape an Obama doctrine


Whether or not the North Koreans put anything into orbit over the weekend, President Obama’s perfectly executed foreign trip was launched into a different layer of the atmosphere -- one where the president’s words may not matter after all.

And whatever Kim Jong Il’s intentions, the rocket launch has raised the stakes of the president’s highly anticipated trip.

As predictable as this was, the campaign prophecies were right: Obama is being tested, and while the call didn’t come at 3 am, 4:30 isn’t that far away. (And it was actually a door-knock, from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, per ABC’s Jake Tapper.) 

(Who would have guessed at the time that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would get woken up?) 

On the flipside, the president has an opportunity here. World events are challenging his leadership, and rallying his opponents, but they’re also helping him make the case for a new approach.

The Obama approach to foreign-policy is getting a real-world test. His first major presidential trip had domestic/economic substance from the start; now it has foreign-policy substance, too.

With the president’s trip continuing through Turkey Monday and Tuesday (he’s speaking in a Muslim country, but not with THE speech in a Muslim country), this marks perhaps the best early chance for Obama to define his own doctrine. The world is watching.

“President Obama learned the limits of diplomacy Sunday: He can't control everything,” USA Today’s Richard Wolf writes. “And so on a trip designed to promote peace and prosperity, Obama was reminded twice in 12 hours not only of the complexities of foreign policy, but also of how his plans can be complicated by those seeking to test his young administration.” 

The Obama approach: “Hours after North Korea’s missile test, President Obama on Sunday called for new United Nations sanctions and laid out a new approach to American nuclear disarmament policy -- one intended to strengthen the United States and its allies in halting proliferation,” Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger write in The New York Times. “It is a strategy based on the idea that if the United States shows it is willing to greatly shrink the size of its atomic arsenal, ban nuclear testing and cut off the worldwide production of bomb material, reluctant allies and partners around the world will be more likely to rewrite nuclear treaties and enforce sanctions against North Korea and Iran.” 

Monday’s main event: President Obama addresses the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, at 8:30 am ET. Later, it’s on to Istanbul, in plenty of time to see whether his Tar Heels pull it off all those time zones away. (But does he want to be rooting against a team from Michigan?)

New vision: “Mr. Obama is embracing the multilateral test-ban treaty that drifted under his predecessor, George W. Bush,” Jonathan Weisman, Marc Champion, and Jay Solomon write in The Wall Street Journal. “But the Obama strategy is a bet that a more active focus on diplomacy can win over the rogue actors -- or else win support from Europe, Russia and China for tougher sanctions.” 

Obama’s words: “Rules must be binding,” the president said in Prague, per ABC’s Jake Tapper. “Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” 

UN Ambassador Susan Rice, on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”: “The challenge, George is to convey with unity, as the president said today, on behalf of the international community, that we will not stand for violations of international law, which this launch represented, that there will be consequences, and that indeed we will proceed together with resolve the goal of achieving a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons.” 

Speaking of words, this twist also gives voice to the opposition -- rendered mute on foreign policy of late:

“We do not appreciate the scale of threat that is evolving on the planet, and North Korea is a totally irresponsible dictatorship run by a person who is clearly out of touch with reality,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said on “Fox News Sunday,” per ABC’s Tahman Bradley. “One morning, just like 9/11, there's going to be a disaster, and people are going to look around and say, 'Gosh, why didn't anyone think of that?' Well, I'm telling you the time to think about it's before the disaster, not afterwards.” 

Obama is thinking about it -- but thinking differently: “The provocative timing -- barely six hours before President Barack Obama delivered a speech on nuclear disarmament here -- is jolting to life a decades-old debate between the political parties,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin and David S. Cloud write. “The White House says the launch only underscores the importance of Obama’s call Sunday for ‘a world without nuclear weapons.’ Hard-line critics say North Korea’s move makes the president’s no-nukes aspirations all the more unrealistic, even dangerous.”

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton: “We'll take you to the Security Council. Say, there's a threat! That has had no practical impact on either Pyongyang or Tehran before and will not in the future.”

Bolton, writing in The Wall Street Journal: “Yesterday's launch is attributable to prior failures, but the global consequences now unfolding are Mr. Obama's responsibility. In fact, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is expected to announce today deep cuts in the U.S. missile defense program, an extraordinarily ill-advised step.” 

That context: “Defense Secretary Robert Gates will propose cuts or delays in weapons programs in an effort to rein in defense spending that has risen 72 percent since 2000. Gates’s announcement at 1:30 p.m. Washington time today may be the easy part. The hard part will come in selling to Congress the fiscal 2010 plan that would begin in October,” Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio and Gopal Ratnam write

The Washington Times editorial: “We would like to see Mr. Obama succeed in his quest for a nuclear-weapons-free world. However, in the contest between his presumed moral authority and the reality of global power politics, we reluctantly are compelled to bet our money on the latter.” 

The limits of Obama’s sway: “There appeared to be little appetite for escalating the confrontation with the isolated regime that defied international warnings with its early morning test,” McClatchy’s Steven Thomma and Warren P. Strobel write. “Despite Obama's call for action, it seemed likely the 15-member council would only criticize North Korea and ask it to return to stalled six-nation talks on eliminating its nuclear weapons. The Security Council decided Sunday to take no immediate action but agreed to continue discussions on a response.” 

But who’s in charge, again? “He didn't get everything he wanted in his first presidential foray onto the world stage, but he passed his audition,” the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page writes. “The same reassuring steadiness that former Secretary of State Colin Powell praised during Obama's presidential campaign showed itself in London last week when it was badly needed to smooth ruffled feathers, reassure world markets and get money flowing again.” 

“Beyond his actions, it is the sharp change in tone and the willingness to cast the United States as a nation that bears much of the responsibility for a raft of global woes that have been most striking in Obama's excursion,” The Washington Post’s Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson write

In Turkey -- which audience is most important to reach? “With President Obama in Turkey for a two-day visit, an ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that Americans overwhelmingly support U.S. outreach to Muslim nations -- but many also express continued suspicion of the world's second-largest religion,” ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes. And: “An overwhelming 81 percent of Americans in this poll call it important for Obama to try to improve U.S. relations with Muslim nations.” 

AFP’s Stephen Collinson: “Barack Obama today aimed to reach out to Turkey for help in successfully ending the war in Iraq and bringing stability to the Middle East during a visit to the predominantly Islamic country. . . . Mr Obama’s visit, his first to a Muslim-majority country, is being closely watched by an Islamic world that harboured deep distrust of his predecessor, George W Bush.”

Back on the domestic front, with Congress on break: “President Barack Obama boasts that he'll reduce spending on key domestic nondefense programs to their lowest levels since the 1960s, but he and Democrats in Congress are on a spending spree not seen since then,” McClatchy’s David Lightman writes. “Few analysts or members of Congress expect Obama to meet his cost-cutting goal, which he projects he won't meet for 10 years.” 

About that army: “In its first big test, the group dubbed Organizing for America (OFA) had little obvious impact on the debate over President Obama's budget, which passed Congress on Thursday with no Republican support and a splintering of votes among conservative Democrats. The capstone of the campaign was the delivery of 214,000 signatures to Capitol Hill, which swayed few, if any, members of Congress, according to legislative aides from both parties,” Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post

Dan Balz takes the long(ish) view: “It is entirely possible that six or nine months from now, President Obama will look back on his first 75 days in office and consider them the easy part. Not because they have been flawless, which they have not been, but because he must now try to finish all that he has started,” Balz writes in the Sunday Washington Post

A comedic turning point, heralded by “SNL”? “With every decision, he is giving Americans (including late-night comics and his opponents) something tangible on which to base their image of him,” GOP strategist Alex Conant blogs. “I think that helps explains the uptick in Republican criticism of Obama in the last few weeks (because we now have an easier target to attack). And it has opened the floodgates for late-night comics to pummel him.”

Is Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a hero or a goat? Is it worth his time and energy to oppose stimulus dollars? “In political terms? No, it’s a sheer loser. But I’m doing what I think to be right,” Sanford tells The State’s John O’Connor

And is Sanford running for president? (Watch the mind churn between ellipses.) “No, I’m not running for president. ... Anything in life can happen. ... All I’m saying is I’m absolutely not running. I’m absolutely focused on the job at hand. ... Anybody who can say unequivocally, ‘I know exactly what I’m doing in five years from now’ either just doesn’t have a clue on how life works or is being dishonest.” 

ABC’s John Hendren, on Sanford: “A lot of politicians talk about bringing people together. But South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford seems to have actually pulled it off. He's united the Democrats who control Congress, the Republicans who control his state's legislature and thousands of angry South Carolinians -- against him.” 

The Kicker:

“It is a striking demonstration of the might of our Juche-oriented science and technology that our scientists and technicians developed both the multistage carrier rocket and the satellite with their own wisdom and technology [and] 100 percent and accurately put the satellite into orbit at one go.” Kim Jong Il, quoted by the Korea Central News Agency.

“It is unfortunate that Levi finds it more appealing to exploit his previous relationship with Bristol than to contribute to the well being of the child.” -- Palin family statement.

Don’t miss “Top Line,”’s new daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET. Monday's guests: ABC’s Martha Raddatz, and National Review’s Rich Lowry.

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