Last night, Barack Obama took to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to promote the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that the White House, along with its P5+1 negotiating partners, signed with Iran earlier this month. It’s a good deal, Obama told the host, it will resolve the issue diplomatically and keep us out of another Middle East war. The president said that hoped the American public would respond positively. “If people are engaged, eventually the political system responds,” said Obama. “Despite the money, despite the lobbyists, it still responds.”
“What do you mean by lobbyists?” the man some viewers regard as the Cronkite of our age never asked the president. It was a lost opportunity to gain some clarity into Obama’s thinking about America’s Middle East policy since he has used the formulation often. For instance, in a press conference following the signing of the JCPOA, Obama said that he hoped Congress would evaluate this agreement fairly, “not based on lobbying, but based on what’s in the national interests of the United States of America.”
In January, Obama seemed to suggest that some elected officials, like Sen. Robert Menendez, didn’t put American national interests first. According to the New York Times, “The president said he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others, but he urged the lawmakers to take the long view rather than make a move for short-term political gain, according to the senator. Mr. Menendez, who was seated at a table in front of the podium, stood up and said he took ‘personal offense.’”
Presumably, Menendez got angry because he didn’t like to have his integrity questioned, not even by the president of the United States. After all, Obama’s charge is based on the assumption that the New Jersey lawmaker couldn’t possibly come to the decision honestly. Rather, someone bought his opinion.
Obama knows that lobbying is a central part of the American political system. Sure, “lobbies” are an easy target for DC-based politicians to remind their constituents back home that they’re with them, and not the big fancy lawyers who go around town swapping steak dinners for votes. The reality of course is that lobbies represent Americans—for instance, the AARP is a lobby that represents the interests of Americans over the age of 50. The NRA represents the interests of American gun owners. If you don’t like what or who they represent, you’re free to start your own lobby. But Obama isn’t playing the populist card here, and he is as beholden to lobbies as much as anyone in Washington ever has been.
In his efforts to get the JCPOA through congress, Obama is using a dog-whistle. He’s hinting broadly at anti-Semitic conceits—like dual loyalties, moneyed interests, Jewish lobby—to scare off Democrats tempted to vote against the JCPOA because they think it’s a bad deal. If they do come out against the agreement—if they line up, for instance, with the new organization AIPAC formed, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran—to warn the public “about the dangers of the proposed Iran deal,” then he’s going to tar them as dual loyalists who are willing to send Americans out to make war on behalf of Jewish causes.
The White House was rightly angry when the prime minister of Israel used racist scare tactics to bring out voters in the March elections. “Arab voters are coming out in droves,” said Benjamin Netanyahu. And even after he apologized, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said, “We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made.” Obama is also using divisive language for political purposes, and he owes the American public an apology.
Watch the full interview below:
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).