WASHINGTON -- One of Ben Rhodes’ first tasks when he followed Barack Obama to the White House in 2009 was to help craft the presidential speech, delivered in Cairo, that urged a restart of Mideast peace talks, called America’s alliance with Israel “unbreakable” and described Palestinian statelessness as “intolerable.”
Four years and a stillborn peace attempt later, Rhodes accompanies the president to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this week with less grand ambitions, but still the professed belief that Obama’s podium diplomacy might make a difference.
As chief speechwriter for the Jerusalem sequel to Obama’s Cairo address, Rhodes faces a balancing act. He will mix Obama’s earlier appeal to the Muslim world with a plea to Israelis to press their leaders harder to search for peace in a region transformed since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
In the Obama White House, no bright line separates the communications part of the operation from the substantive making of foreign policy. Obama’s aides cite the “centrality of communication” to implementing effective policy.
“In diplomacy, words matter,” said Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joseph Biden’s national security advisor. “The way the administration expresses its vision, its principles, its priorities -- these things end up having a huge impact that is central to the policy itself. How we are perceived by various audiences is often, in fact, the policy.”
Rhodes, 35, embodies that overlap between messaging and policy, and his role in shaping the president’s speeches has given him a prominent position in policymaking. He joined Obama’s first presidential campaign just as it was starting, then became principal foreign policy speechwriter at the White House.
He was promoted to deputy national security advisor in charge of strategic communication after the Cairo speech, and his influence in Obama’s inner circle grew, according to peers in the White House and State Department.
Rhodes wasn’t the first senior aide to urge Obama to try to stop Libyan leader Moamar Kadafi from killing civilians in 2011. But colleagues say he was first to warn Obama that failing to stop the slaughter would undermine pro-democracy movements across the region.
“How we respond is going to send a message to the people of Libya,” he told the president, according to a colleague, and “to the people of the region, as well as their leaders. If Kadafi can get away with crushing the rebellion, it will have a chilling effect all over.”
“As part of his job, he obviously helps decide how to describe to the public particular policy choices,” said Samantha Power, who stepped down last week as a White House national security aide. “But he's far more than a messenger. He has a very important voice in his own right. He stands with these gargantuan personalities in the Cabinet and helps define the policy itself.”
As Obama’s trip to Israel has approached, Rhodes has been making the point that Israel can no longer rely on authoritarian leaders in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world to help guarantee its security. Israelis must acknowledge the impact that democratic change has had on at least some of the countries around them, he said in a recent conference call with reporters.
“Israel, as it makes peace, is going to have to recognize the broader role of public opinion in peacemaking,” he said.
As speechwriter, Rhodes must make the best of a trip that is more about symbolism than substance. The speech will stress that people can make a difference, even if their leaders are stuck, and its location will underscore that message.
Unlike Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama is not speaking at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Instead he will address a convention hall Thursday packed with university students. The U.S. Embassy is using a Facebook page and other social media to give out tickets and promote Obama’s ideas.
“The speech is a moment where he’ll be in a room with the Israeli public,” Rhodes said. Israelis hear “all kinds of messages” from American politicians, he said, “but it’s just different when you’re able to do it face to face.”
In a region defined by historic hostilities, Rhodes agrees with Obama that common purposes and goals are of greater importance. That idea infused the Cairo speech, which evoked shared experiences and aspirations across the Arab world. The president will deliver a similar message in Israel.
“People can have a sense of hope in Israel and in the Arab world that peace is possible,” he said. “That’s the type of dynamic we want to support.”