Embraced Overseas, But to What Effect?

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has embarked on a weeklong tour of the Middle East and Europe designed to deepen his foreign policy credentials, confront questions at home about his readiness to be commander in chief and signal the possibility of a new era in U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

LONDON, July 26 -- By almost every measure, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's overseas tour that concluded here Saturday was a clear success, with meticulously planned and deftly executed events designed to beam back images to the United States of a politician comfortable on the world stage.

What isn't measurable is whether it worked. Will a week of one-on-one meetings with foreign officials, cheering crowds, favorable and voluminous media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic and plain good fortune on the debate over getting out of Iraq overcome the doubts he faces at home about his readiness to be president? And if it doesn't, what will?

As Obama moved from Iraq and Afghanistan to Jordan and Israel and then to three European capitals before flying back to Chicago on Saturday night, strategists back home measured the political fallout for the senator from Illinois and for the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain on an almost hourly basis. Their consensus was that the week turned into a near-rout for Obama.

John Weaver, who once was McCain's top political strategist, said his old boss made a big mistake by virtually daring Obama to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, only to see Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki generally embrace the Democrat's plan for withdrawing combat forces when he went there.

"McCain lost the week badly, let's be honest," Weaver said in a message on Friday. "John [McCain] is still in striking distance, thanks to his own character, biography and memories of the McCain of previous election cycles. But he cannot afford another week like this one."

Alex Castellanos, another Republican strategist, agreed that Obama had acquitted himself well overseas. " 'Barack goes global' is working," he noted. But he sounded a cautionary note, nonetheless. Obama, unlike McCain, he said, remains a work in progress who is still trying to answer the question, "Who is this guy?"

"I think voters see this difference between the two men," he said in a message. "John McCain is complete. Barack Obama is completing himself. The question is, will he finish that job by November?"

Obama himself foresees no quick payoff from his foreign trip. Aboard his campaign charter, as he prepared to leave Paris for London on Friday afternoon, he talked about what he had seen and how he thought it might play at home.

"I'm not sure there's any short-term [political gain], and I know that seems strange since obviously we put a lot of work into it," he said. "I don't think that we'll see a bump in the polls. I think we might even lose some points. People back home are worried about gas prices; they're worried about jobs."

Obama's assessment is that the payoff from one of the most ambitious foreign trips ever undertaken by a presumptive nominee could come much later. "The value to me of this trip is, hopefully, it gives voters a sense that I can in fact -- and do -- operate effectively on the international stage," he said. "That may not be decisive for the average voter right now, given our economic troubles, but it's knowledge they can store in the back of their minds for when they go into the polling place later."

Given the mismatch between the Obama and McCain campaigns over the past week, the other question for Obama is why the race for president remains as relatively close as it does. Obama said he believes that is because voters still have enough questions to keep them from committing.

Despite the pace he kept up all week, Obama was thoroughly familiar with the results of a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, which showed him leading McCain 47 percent to 41 percent.

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