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No Givens As Obama Steps Onto World Stage
"That's an invitation to disillusionment," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "These are complicated times. There's an anger in the world . . . about how people think our country has helped create these problems. The president has to lift heavily to get us over the Bush hurdle."
Throughout the presidential campaign, Obama's rivals repeatedly questioned whether his youth and relative inexperience would make him a pushover when he came face to face with world leaders.
Obama's mission now is to lay those doubts to rest, in part by making good on his campaign promise to improve the sometimes-strained relations with U.S. allies.
Aides point out that Obama has been engaged in that effort since he took office, calling world leaders almost daily. Last week, he discussed his trip and the global economic crisis with French, German and British leaders, among others.
Between dealing with economic crises, Obama has made moves that have been generally well received across the Atlantic: ordering the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, closed; announcing a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq; and crafting a new policy for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he announced Friday.
"This is his first major multi-lateral summit," said one senior foreign policy adviser. "But he's been working the issues all the way back to the transition."
Michael Froman, Obama's deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, said the president plans to "lead by example," offering his actions domestically -- including a stimulus package, regulatory reform, housing proposals and financial stability plans -- as motivation for global action.
"He's going first and foremost to show U.S. engagement to the rest of the world. Be open-minded, listen, but also to lead, lead by example," Froman said.
The question is whether that will be enough to create enthusiasm among leaders faced with their own struggles.
Obama's counterparts are grappling with economic crises at least as severe as the one in the United States. That has led to political instability throughout much of Europe that complicates Obama's upcoming meetings.
Governments have collapsed in Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Iceland and, most recently, the Czech Republic, where Mirek Topolanek, the prime minister, lost a vote of no confidence. Topolanek serves as the president of the European Union and is expected to remain the host for the organization's summit in Prague today despite his political problems.
"[Obama's] problem is that everyone is weak. His main allies are very weak. Even his rivals are weak," said Moisés Naím, editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine. "In the weakness of rivals loom large risk."