Romney’s speech was billed as the table-setter for a journey that inevitably will be compared with the one Obama took four years ago as a candidate. In a pre-trip conference call, his advisers sought to lower expectations. Romney, they said, will learn and listen in three countries that are among the staunchest U.S. allies. Given those constraints, Romney decided to get everything off his chest before leaving.
But the sharp critique will heighten the importance of his trip while subjecting him to greater scrutiny and more questions about his foreign policy. The speech is likely to touch off a more vigorous debate between the two sides about a topic that has been mostly in the background this year. Some of that will follow Romney overseas.
Having used his time in Reno to blast the president, Romney may find it difficult to mute his criticism abroad. He will be asked at every opportunity to explain himself. He plans to give speeches in Israel and Poland, and aides have said those will be opportunities for him to say where he stands and, by implication, where he differs from the president.
Obama’s overseas trip in 2008 set a new standard for presidential candidates in terms of length and ambition. It underscored that, at a time when Obama was trying to convince Americans that he was capable of leading, he was already an international celebrity and someone considered an antidote to eight years of President George W. Bush, who was deeply unpopular in Europe.
For Romney, there is little value in trying to compete with the optics of Obama’s trip. Obama drew 200,000 people for a speech in Berlin, was fawned over by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and overshadowed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), his Republican rival.
Romney is not a political phenomenon. He will get a thorough look from his hosts, if not an outpouring of affection from the people. The question is: To what end? Will this trip be judged as a political or a substantive success?
Romney’s speech Tuesday critiqued Obama’s record in an area where the public has generally given the president good marks — far better certainly than on the economy or the budget. The address was, perhaps necessarily, short on details about where and to what degree Romney’s policies would depart from the president’s.