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Obama's healthcare bounce spreads overseas

March 24, 2010 | 10:14 am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Bibi Netanyahu welcomed to the West Wing March 23, 2010 by an unidentified White House greeter photo by AP

When President Obama postponed his trip to Indonesia and Australia to help Democrats cross the finish line on healthcare, Republican critics were irate. The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, speech writer for President Reagan, had a public hissy fit over it.

Excuse me, but it is embarrassing -- really, embarrassing to our country -- that the president of the United States has again put off a state visit to Australia and Indonesia because he's having trouble passing a piece of domestic legislation he's been promising for a year will be passed next week.

What an air of chaos this signals to the world. And to do this to Australia of all countries, a nation that has always had America's back and been America's friend. How bush league, how undisciplined, how kid's stuff.

Well excuse me, but it is clear that Obama's historic achievement was impressive to political leaders around the world. As London's Guardian put it, finally the Democrats found their spine.

Overseas, the victory has rebranded the White House from weak to muscular. The Financial Times' Gideon Rachman suggested that Obama's faltering for more than a year in the effort to pass healthcare reform sapped his credibility, not just in America but around the world. Now, the columnist said, foreign leaders who are inclined to thumb their nose at the president will reconsider. Hello Tehran, Moscow, Tel Aviv.

The most visible sign so far is the visit to Washington of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. When Vice President Biden visited Israel recently, Bibi thumbed his nose at him, announcing 1,600 more Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope to make their capital if the two sides ever agree to live next to each other. The Obama administration was livid, and New York Times' columnist Tom Friedman suggested that Biden should have responded by leaving the country in protest.

But that was in early March. When Netanyahu came to Washington this week for meetings just after the  historic House vote, he was not so brash. In fact, so forceful was the Obama administration in laying down the law to Netanyahu that after the two leaders met and Obama had returned to the residence for the evening, the Israeli leader requested a second meeting.

So sobered was Netanyahu by the White House demand that he freeze settlements that he canceled his U.S. media appearances this morning. So attuned was the White House to the optics that no official photos of the two leaders talking were released.

In politics as in life, everyone loves a winner. Already, now that the healthcare bill is on the books and some of the hysteria has passed, Obama's poll numbers are up domestically. The latest Gallup Poll shows the president's approval rating back up to 51% from last week's mark of 46%.

But on the international stage, victory is about more than popularity, it's about respect. And the one thing that always garners applause in foreign capitals is pure political power.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed to the West Wing not by bands but by an unidentified White House staffer on Tuesday. Credit: Associated Press

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