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Robert Schmuhl: History is waiting for the president it deserves

WHEN historians survey Barack Obama's White House years, this past month could prove a turning point in the trajectory of his presidency.

At home dealing with Congress and during his first international trip of the second term, Mr Obama conducted himself with more of a hands-on approach. Instead of keeping Republicans at arm's length or paying lip-service to the need for a Middle East peace process, the president became personally engaged, reaching out and involving himself in some of the thorniest issues facing him.

Beginning on March 6 with dinner for 12 Republican senators at a Washington hotel, Mr Obama, a Democrat, opened a bipartisan discussion on the budget, government funding and other matters.

The next day at the White House, he had lunch with Paul Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and the ranking Democrat on the committee Chris Van Hollen.

Then, a few days later, Mr Obama went to the Capitol for larger meetings with representatives and senators, spending 90 minutes with Republicans in the House.

"He was not whisked out," one congressman commented. "That was not lost on anybody." In other words, the president made time for legislators in the congressional chamber most hostile to his agenda.

Given the current level of partisanship in Washington, any activity demonstrating willingness to discuss differences qualifies for man-bites-dog newsworthiness.

In 2010, when Mr Obama's healthcare legislation came up for a vote, not a single House or Senate Republican supported it.

Since then, hewing to the party line in Congress has become more pronounced, according to political scientists. Whether the president's charm offensive will reduce governmental gridlock is an open question. But talking with officeholders in the other party is at least a first step in establishing a rapport for future business.

Internationally, during the first term, Mr Obama met several times with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in sessions invariably described as "frosty". For last week's trip to the Holy Land, Mr Obama appeared to adapt to the Mediterranean climate's warmth. The two leaders' body language was read as genuine geniality rather than forced diplomatic smiles. Both Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu are beginning new terms in office.

"It's good to get away from Congress," Mr Obama joked on arrival in what he thought was a private remark. But levity about Washington wrangling quickly gave way to America's concern for Israel's security and trying to create an environment for resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Besides closed-door meetings with Mr Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, Mr Obama delivered a major speech intended to inspire Israelis to push for renewed discussions between long-time adversaries.

He declared that "political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see."

Mr Obama was straightforward in presenting the human stakes involved. "Put yourself in their shoes," he said. "Look at the world through their eyes . . . just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land."

These remarks and others conveyed Mr Obama's commitment to a role in nudging the peace process along. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled follow-up meetings to work out details.

At the end of his sojourn in Israel, Mr Obama turned talk into action, orchest-rating a call between Mr Netanyahu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. In it Mr Netanyahu apologised for Israel's deadly attack on a Turkish ship bringing civilian goods to Gaza in 2010.

By serving as intermediary, Mr Obama initiated the resumption of normal relations for key US allies in a region made increasingly unstable by the Syrian civil war and Iran's nuclear ambitions. To have Israel and Turkey no longer at loggerheads is a diplomatic success with potential long-term benefits.

Assessing Mr Obama's trip, one US commentator noted "he hasn't brought peace to the Middle East but he's brought peace to the American debate about the Middle East. The right loved it, the left loved it".

In recent weeks with congressional Republicans and Middle East leaders, Mr Obama has looked beyond confrontation and planted new seeds of co-operation.

Future months will show whether they germinate and actually produce a president who bridges differences to accomplish some of the change he promised in 2008.

Robert Schmuhl is Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame

Irish Independent