Hollywood, Polls, Neighbors Point Obama Toward Changing Cuba Policy

Obama is unlikely to push ahead alone, but he might go with allies.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Whether he likes it or not, President Obama is going to talk about Cuba in the next couple of days as he meets with other hemispheric leaders at the regional summit. And he's facing increasing (but uncertain) pressure to bring sanity to our Cuba policy.

WorldPublicOpinion.org (which is run out of the University of Maryland) released a new poll showing that while the nation remains divided on the embargo specifically (49-48 in favor of lifting it), a sizable majority (59 percent) favors "a new approach to Cuba" (as opposed to 39 percent who want to stick with the same old policy), three-quarters said it would be a "good idea ... for U.S. government leaders to be ready to meet with Cuban leaders," and 69 percent favoring re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Oh, and 70 percent think that Americans should be able to visit Cuba. Broadly speaking, this poll is in line with other recent polls on the subject, which show that most Americans favor moves like re-establishing diplomatic relations and dropping the embargo.

Elsewhere, Hollywood figures (which is to say: a big source of Democratic bucks) are starting to get itchy about Cuba policy. Why? Because Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is one of the last Cuba hard-liners. From Variety:

Political consultant Andy Spahn, whose clients include industry figures such as Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, has traveled to Cuba numerous times as part of special delegations and is urging support for a lifting of the travel ban.

Spahn says, "Senator Menendez, as part of the Senate leadership, had no business holding the president's omnibus spending bill hostage for four days over some minor policy tweaks, regarding U.S. Cuba relations. His extreme right wing views on these issues are out of step with his colleagues in the Senate, the administration and the nation.

"His actions will definitely hurt his fund-raising efforts as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee."

Them's fighting words.

Abroad, as the Council on Foreign Relations' Julia Sweig told me recently, our hemispheric neighbors are increasingly using U.S. Cuba policy as a litmus test for the new Obama administration. The Cuba embargo is finally succeeding in isolating a nation, but it's not Cuba.

Where does that leave Obama? The irony of Cuba (and this is why I said up top that the pressure is uncertain) is that because it's so insignificant strategically it does not merit the special status it has in U.S. policy, but also does not bring with it much political pay-off for removing its special status. Is removing the embargo popular? Sure. Do people consider that a cutting issue? Nope—not people in favor of removing the embargo, anyway.

I think Steve Clemons has the Obama position about right:

What Obama foreign policy strategists Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert are probably thinking — and I have reason to suspect that McDonough in particular has had leverage and significant involvement in the just released policy — is that they have now started something that Congress and others are going to have to vigorously fight to move forward.

The Obama administration never intended to carry all of the water on completely changing the US-Cuba relationship into something that makes 21st century sense — but they are telegraphing — or Denis McDonough is in my view — that the White House is perhaps willing to work with Congress to move this into territory that Obama has not yet committed to and did not express support for during the campaign.

There's an opportunity here. We'll see if pressure for change is steady enough to make something happen.

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