Obama's world record

By Dana Milbank
Friday, November 13, 2009

It sounds tailor-made for a GOP ad:

Unemployment hits 9.4 percent. President Obama flies to France.

Joblessness reaches 9.7 percent. Obama jets off to Denmark.

The rate of those out of work soars to 10.2 percent. Obama packs his bags for Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea.

Faced with the worst domestic economy in decades, the president has responded -- by setting a record for foreign travel. An Asian swing that began Thursday will bring his total this year to 20 countries in eight trips, according to CBS News's Mark Knoller, official statistician of the White House press corps.

That easily bests the previous record-holder, George H.W. Bush, who hit 14 countries in his first year. By the time he returns next week, Obama will have spent more than 12 percent of his presidency overseas -- and he still has another trip or two in the works for this year.

Yet there has not been a peep of criticism from the normally querulous opposition. A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee confirmed Thursday that neither the party nor its lawmakers had taken on Obama for his globe-trotting. Indeed, one aspiring GOP presidential contender for 2012, Newt Gingrich, condemned Obama this week for not flying to Berlin to mark the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's toppling.

Normally, Obama's wanderlust would be a liability, because Americans care more about the economy than foreign affairs. But the normal rules don't seem to apply this year, largely because Obama's predecessor left the nation's world standing in a shambles. While Republicans may be tempted to criticize Obama for being "intercontinental," as Bush would have put it, "the ability to change the way America is viewed is powerful," a senior Obama adviser said Thursday, "and they are afraid of looking petty."

Polling by the Pew Research Center at the end of Bush's presidency found that 70 percent of Americans thought the country had become less respected in the world (only 5 percent said "more respected"), and most of them thought the decline in standing was a major problem.

"Repairing our image overseas was an important consideration for the public," said Andrew Kohut, the poll's director. Americans have given Obama credit for a "dramatic improvement" in the nation's standing, he said.

By some measures, in fact, foreigners have a more favorable view of Obama than Americans do.

Eighty-six percent of Britons, 88 percent of Canadians, 91 percent of French and 93 percent of Germans say they have confidence in him. So do 85 percent of Japanese, 88 percent of Nigerians and 77 percent of Indians. All those figures trump Americans' confidence in their own president -- 74 percent when the poll was done in the spring.

That could explain why Obama seems to enjoy spending so much time with the foreign media. As president, he has had a dozen sit-down sessions with journalists from across the world; his first interview in the White House was with al-Arabiya television. His foreign questioners tend to be a bit less skeptical than their American counterparts. The French TV interviewer peppered Obama with such queries as, "What do you love about France, if I may ask?" and "The wine? Did you go to Provence?"

In Cairo, reporters from the Muslim world took turns congratulating Obama for the speech he had just given. A reporter from Indonesia gave the president an update on his childhood neighborhood and school. The BBC, in its interview, inquired about his personal reading. The Canadian journalist spoke about hockey. The reporter from Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency spoke about the first lady's vegetable garden, then presented Obama with a nesting doll of American politicians:

Q: It's most popular toy in Moscow streets now.

A: Yes. I like this . . .

Q: All Democrats inside.

A: You've got only Democrats.

Q: Only Democrats inside. No Republicans.

A: Excellent. Thank you so much.

The Obama worship is continuing this week in Asia. Members of the White House press corps, arriving in Japan before the president, were amused to find a picture of Obama in the window of a restaurant with the words in English, "Yes we have."

But Obama knows to be careful about the overseas adulation, a lesson learned the hard way during the presidential campaign, when he was mocked by his GOP opponent as a "celebrity" and compared to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton for his speech before an adoring crowd in Berlin.

As he prepared to leave the White House on Thursday morning, Obama first stopped to address the cameras in the Diplomatic Reception Room. "Before departing for Asia this morning, I'd like to make a brief statement about the economy," he said, assuring Americans that he'll "be meeting with leaders abroad to discuss a strategy for growth" and to make sure "Asian and Pacific markets are open to our exports."

Nineteen minutes later, Marine One and the peripatetic president were airborne again.

Four hours after that, Obama was safely over Canada when his Treasury Department announced another record monthly budget deficit.

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