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.
"The point is, with change comes some risk, and I combine two things," he said. One is a shift in policies, the other a biography he said will take people time to process. "They're going to keep their powder dry and get as much information as they can the next three months," he added.
McCain advisers complained through much of the week about what they labeled "a premature victory lap," and McCain made a joke of it.
At his closing news conference in London, Obama pushed back against suggestions that there was something inappropriate about his week abroad.
"It is hard for me to understand Senator McCain's argument," he said. "He was telling me I was supposed to take this trip. . . . John McCain has visited every one of these countries, post-primary, that I have. He has given speeches in Canada, in Colombia, Mexico, he made visits. And so it doesn't strike me that we have done anything different than the McCain campaign has done."
The difference, of course, was the scale and ambition of Obama's tour. He flew in a chartered plane with the words "Change We Can Believe In" on the fuselage and with a sizable press corps. He traveled with a retinue of senior foreign policy advisers, who were veterans of the Clinton administration, as well as his top political advisers. McCain had nothing in comparison.
From a sheer logistical challenge, what Obama attempted was unprecedented, a presidential-style trip without the resources and clout of the White House. But the result was a series of meetings with foreign leaders who seemed to go out of their way to court their guest, as well as stunning visual images, from a news conference on a hillside in Jordan, with the ruins of the Temple of Hercules in one direction and the city of Amman as a backdrop, to the sea of humanity -- estimated at 200,000 -- that turned out in Berlin on Thursday night for Obama's only major public event of the trip.
The policy highlight was Iraq and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's embrace of a timetable for withdrawal akin to Obama's 16-month plan. The visual highlight was Berlin.
"The speech in Berlin and that stirring picture of the crowd lined up a mile long will be the enduring image or memory of this trip," Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein said. "That said, 'America is back' -- or more accurately, 'America will be back' -- in world esteem more than any nifty turn of phrase Obama and his excellent speechwriters could have ever come up with."
But Republican strategist Alex Vogel called the Obama strategy "the hope of audacity" and said it may not work. "Taking a page from the Clinton campaign's inevitability strategy, the Obama folks are hoping that voters will substitute symbolism for experience," he said.
The message Obama hoped to send was that, after eight years of President Bush and rising anti-American sentiment in many countries, the United States could have a president the rest of the world admires.
"What I thought was useful was to give the American people some sense of how I was approaching these issues, but also to give them a sense that the world can be responsive to this approach and that it will make a difference," Obama said.
"[French President Nicolas] Sarkozy is much more likely to be able to provide more troop support in Afghanistan if his voters are favorably disposed towards us," he added.
But a Democrat who supported another candidate during the nomination battle had a more skeptical assessment of all the imagery. He argued that the Obama team is mistaken in believing that meetings with foreign leaders will help overcome a relatively thin résumé in foreign affairs.
"It's not whether he has experience or is presidential; it's whether voters can relate to him, given his unusual background and his often seeming arrogance. Talking to Germans and having Sarkozy embrace you make this problem worse, not better. If I were the RNC [Republican National Committee], I'd use the German-language Obama flier in an ad to make him appear more foreign, more distant."
The trip went smoothly save for one flap with the Pentagon over a planned visit by Obama to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Pentagon officials raised concerns about campaign aspects of the visit, and Obama's team scrubbed it, then tried to explain what they had been told that forced them to back away.
Looking for an opening, McCain accused Obama in a new ad of "going to the gym" while in Germany instead of visiting the wounded troops, and of doing so because the hospitals would not let television cameras film the event.
McCain said in an interview to be aired Sunday morning on ABC's "This Week" program that "if I had been told by the Pentagon that I couldn't visit those troops, and I was there and wanted to be there, I guarantee you, there would have been a seismic event," according to the Associated Press.
Substantively, the trip left questions for Obama. He struggled to square his opposition to the troop buildup in Iraq with the successes he witnessed and talked about. Obama initially said the buildup might even increase violence. Now that it has helped produce the opposite, McCain, rather than Obama, can claim he had superior judgment.
His willingness to pledge to make the Middle East one of his administration's top priorities leaves open how he can fulfill that promise, given the urgency he would face as president to deal with the economy and with all the potential complications of drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq and augmenting them in Afghanistan.
He went to countries to offer reassurances, but as he noted Saturday morning at his news conference, in answer to a question about British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's political troubles, the realities of governing are different. "I will tell you that you are always more popular before you are actually in charge of things," he said. "And then, you know, once you are responsible, then you are going to make some people unhappy."