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What's Sexier: Obama's Smoking or His Nuclear Weapons Policy?

4 years ago
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On Monday, as I walked to the White House for the daily press briefing, I bumped into a Canadian journalist who was heading there as well, and we engaged in a common practice: guessing what topic would dominate the questions for press secretary Robert Gibbs. Health care, I said, explaining that this was still the main narrative of Washington's political theater: Would President Obama resolve to use the reconciliation procedure to push his health care overhaul over the finish line? "Not the new Nuclear Posture Review?" she asked, almost incredulously. I chuckled and politely shook my head. "But it's on the front page of The New York Times," she exclaimed.

Indeed it was. That day, Times reporter David Sanger was reporting that Obama was putting the finishing touches on a nuclear weapons policy review that would seek to reduce the U.S. arsenal by thousands of warheads but that would reject a proposal long-advocated by arms controllers -- for the United States to declare it would never be the first to launch nuclear weapons. The article noted that Obama has yet to resolve a crucial matter: Would the United States reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a biological or chemical attack, even if the attacker were a country that didn't possess nuclear weapons? Also under consideration, the Times noted, is withdrawing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons -- essentially, smaller nukes on smaller missiles -- now based in Europe. The big issue, not yet decided, is whether Obama should declare that the "sole purpose" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter any other nation from firing nuclear weapons at us, or whether he should leave some wiggle room so the U.S. could use its nukes in another extreme situation.

This is heavy and important stuff. When people talk about the U.S. president being the most powerful person on the planet, this is what they have in mind. He controls thousands of nuclear bombs that could wipe out . . . well, everything. Yet though we all live under the shadow of possible nuclear Armageddon, this subject is hardly ever on the political radar screen. In the 1980s, when President Reagan was beefing up the U.S. nuclear arsenal and deploying nuclear missiles in Europe close to the Soviet Union, and his aides were talking about winning a nuclear war, the issue was hot. Millions marched in the streets for a nuclear weapons freeze. There were dramatic show-downs in Congress over Reagan's nuclear plans. Politicians had to be able to talk deterrence and throw-weights.

Since then, nuclear weaponry hasn't been on the buzz list. In the 2008 campaign, Obama tried to make nuclear weapon security -- ensuring that existing warheads aren't obtained by terrorists or dictators -- something of an issue. But I doubt many voters had that on their minds when they entered the voting booths.

So I was amused when this foreign reporter suggested that White House reporters would be hurling questions at Gibbs about nuclear weapons. Instead, there were queries about Obama's next steps on health care reform. (Gibbs promised the president would reveal his plans Wednesday.) And in the aftermath of Obama's first physical as president, the reporters asked repeatedly about his smoking and cholesterol level. Gibbs noted that Obama is 95 percent cured of smoking but that he "loves the pastry chef." Which prompted joshing and laughter. After Gibbs said the pastry chef would keep baking and it's up to Obama to show "presidential restraint," I cracked, "It's a demand problem, not a supply problem." There was not one question about the Nuclear Posture Review. (For the record, I asked whether the president would veto a financial reform bill if it sets up a Consumer Financial Protection Agency that's not given sufficient authority. Gibbs said he didn't "want to get that far ahead of the process.")

Nuclear policy just ain't sexy. It's too daunting, or too abstract. Better to zero in on how many cigs the president is sneaking and whom he's bumming them from.

It's not that nuclear policy isn't dramatic. Last April, Obama delivered a speech in Prague and boldly promised to work toward a "world without nuclear weapons." Toward that end, he said that the United States "will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy." Yet, as Julian Borger of The Guardian points out, Obama's pending Nuclear Posture Review "is hard to square" with that pledge. In other words, Obama is backsliding.

Shouldn't presidential backsliding regarding nukes be part of the D.C. chatter -- along with Obama's smoking habit and the fall of the White House social secretary? Still, I do want to know what desserts the guy is eating.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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