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The Two Worlds of Obama

Barack Obama is stepping softly in international affairs, but he is treading as robustly in domestic policy as any president since perhaps Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Never have those two distinct tactics been more evident than this week.

The president, who as a candidate promised a friendlier American foreign policy, has carefully chosen his words about the election protests in Iran. In an ongoing showdown over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Obama has stressed the United States' alliance with South Korea over more confrontational rhetoric toward the North Koreans.

Both positions have drawn criticism from political opponents, including 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, for being too timid, too defensive, and too reluctant to push democratic ideals. Obama's defenders say he confronts the likelihood that neither country's regime is about to change anytime soon, and any escalation in tensions could only make things worse.

On the home front, Obama this week alone has introduced sweeping new financial regulations and announced a new "United We Serve" community service initiative. Wednesday, he was preparing an executive order allowing health care and other benefits to gay partners of federal employees, what appears to be a response to supporters upset with his administration's legal defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Obama has also kicked into campaign-style gear to promote health care reform measures that could cost $1 trillion over 10 years. These initiatives, coupled with expensive "stimulus" and federal bailouts of banks and auto companies already passed, makes this a domestic policy push unrivaled for any president since LBJ's Great Society in the mid-1960s.

Obama's home-front critics say he is going too fast, and spending too much money in the process.

"I am getting a lot of feedback that the president is rushing everything through, whether it is spending programs, it is health care, it is cap and trade, it is stimulus packages, buying General Motors," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who also isn't happy about the timetable for holding hearings next month on Obama's pick for the Supreme Court. "I think the American people are getting scared here a little bit. I hear people say, 'It worries me. What are you all doing?' "

But on foreign policy, the criticism is exactly the opposite.

Asked Tuesday about Iran, Obama expressed "deep concerns" about the election results there. But, he added: "Now, it's not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling - the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections."

By contrast, Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, often openly invited solidarity with the Iranian people against their government, and he famously labeled Iran - along with North Korea and Iraq - as the "axis of evil."

"He should speak out that this is a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election," McCain told NBC, referring to Iran. "The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights."

Obama's more restrained approach is a recognition that any overt signs of U.S. involvement in Iranian affairs could be used by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to strengthen his hold on power by asserting that the U.S. was behind his political opponents. The U.S. has a long and controversial relationship with Iran, dating back to the Shah of Iran and through the hostage crisis of the late 1970s.

Iran also occupies a crucial geopolitical position for the U.S. The country lies between Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States has been fighting wars since 2003 and 2001, respectively. Iranian influence or covert involvement has been blamed for spiking violence in Iraq, where the United States is trying to withdraw combat troops and wind down its involvement.

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