Behind the Bush-Obama Smackfest

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Larry Downing / Reuters

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks to the Knesset in Jerusalem May 15, 2008.

In the escalating smackfest between President George W. Bush and Barack Obama it's hard to know who needs whom more. Bush is struggling to keep his presidency relevant, and injecting himself into the presidential campaign is a sure way to do that. At the same time, Obama is happy for any opportunity to tie Bush to Republican nominee-to-be John McCain's side.

For Bush, there's no faster way into the campaign to succeed him (and to reinvigorating his presidency) that via the issue of Israeli security. So today, in front of a supportive audience at the Israeli Knesset, Bush went right at Obama. He mocked those who "believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." Last July, Obama said he supported direct and unconditional talks with the leaders of Iran and North Korea, among others, and though he has backed away from that position, his primary campaign has made much of the need for negotiation over confrontation. Today Bush called that approach "the false comfort of appeasement."

But the speed with which Obama responded to Bush's Knesset comments says something about his eagerness to lock horns with the President and the use his campaign is going to make of him in coming months. Bush was barely out of the Knesset before Obama's campaign went at him. "It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence to launch a false political attack," Obama said in a statement released by the campaign.

Obama's strategy for the general election is to hammer the idea that John McCain will continue Bush's policies at home and abroad. He made the argument most recently in his victory speech after his win in North Carolina, when he said, "We can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term." It helps that Bush is at record public disapproval levels, his Arab-Israeli peace process is near dead, his efforts to prevent Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons appear to be going nowhere, and oil prices are soaring beyond his control.

But there's a downside for both men in the fight. Bush is not just trying to stay relevant by injecting himself into the campaign: he's trying to help John McCain, partly because he wants the Republican to win and partly because the election will be seen in as a referendum on his presidency. But McCain's growing attempts to distance himself from Bush show his campaign may not welcome Bush reminding voters he's still there.

Obama has a problem too: picking a fight with Bush over the Palestinian question will draw attention to a weak point in his campaign. A Hamas leader recently endorsed Obama, saying the group would like it if he won the U.S. election. An occasional adviser to the campaign, Robert Malley, formerly a Clinton Administration expert and now an analyst for the International Crisis Group, was forced out of the campaign after his meetings with Hamas came to light. And Obama has distanced himself from former Carter adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski because he is perceived as anti-Israel. "He's not one of my key advisers," Obama said in February, "I've had lunch with him once."

Though the White House says Bush meant no offense with his comments at the Knesset today, White House spokesperson Dana Perino twisted the knife further in comments to reporters after the speech. "I understand when you're running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you," she said of Obama. Of course, by targeting Obama, Bush only falls into orbit around him. But that may be the only way to get attention and fight for his legacy in the remaining months of his presidency. For better or worse, Obama will try to make the most of it. Which means the Bush-Obama smackfest will become a regular feature of the general election campaign.