Will Obama's trip boost his chances?

In Focus // Politics

July 20, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

To hear some of the talk, Barack Obama's overseas campaign swing is risky political business.

The idea that there's a lot at stake in his trip to Europe and the Middle East is likely to get amped over the next few days. The threat, however small, that he'll commit a horrendous gaffe is one way to hype interest in the story. It also helps justify the remarkable decision by the TV networks to send their top news anchors along for the ride.

Experienced campaign strategists hoot at the negative chatter. They see Obama's venture as relatively low-risk - and a public relations windfall for the Democratic candidate, thanks to juiced-up television exposure.

"Nothing works more effectively in reinforcing the notion that somebody's an international leader than international travel," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles who is not working in the campaign. He dismisses dire predictions about the trip as "cocktail party nonsense."

For the record, here's a bit of the stuff being tossed about on both sides of the Atlantic:

European adulation for Obama will make him the continent's poodle. To voters back home, he could come off as elitist, more European than American (though, shades of Incurious George, he's apparently spent just 24 hours in Western Europe over the past 10 years).

He may weaken his shaky image among those independent swing voters who live bitter lives in working-class towns. Many already regard him as a suspiciously foreign anyway and could resent the rest of the world telling them whom to elect.

It didn't help John Kerry in '04 that he spoke fluent French and captured Europe's heart as that year's anti-Bush. And what about that notion that politics is supposed to stop at this country's shores?

"Let's drop the pretense that this is a fact-finding trip," Jill Hazelbaker, campaign spokeswoman for John McCain, said on Fox the other day. "Call it what it is: the first-of-its-kind campaign rally overseas."

Exactly.

The centerpiece of the journey is Thursday's speech in Germany, an apparently unprecedented decision to stage a U.S. presidential campaign crowd event on foreign soil.

Even before Obama clinched the nomination, Germans viewed him as "the new Kennedy." Over the next few days, that notion is likely to get conveyed to American voters, which is precisely what Obama wants.

His speech in Berlin is being compared to President John F. Kennedy's appearance in the divided city, at the height of the Cold War, which drew ecstatic crowds and became the stuff of legend. (Another part of Obama's effort to model himself after Kennedy: giving his convention acceptance speech before a large crowd at a nearby stadium, as JFK did in 1960.)

An Obama ad team will be on hand for the Berlin rally, which figures to become part of the campaign the same way President Ronald Reagan's emotional D-Day anniversary speech in France did, as a TV commercial.

Like candidate Reagan in the 1980 race, Obama is "a famous person who is not well known," says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. Voters had to get used to the idea of Reagan as the guy with his finger on the nuclear button. Obama's people recognize that their whole challenge is to get the American people comfortable with the idea of him ... as commander in chief and the leader of the country."

Obama aides see the trip as an opportunity to show the world a different face of U.S. policy. Their latest campaign slogan - "New leadership for a changing world" - made its debut in an Obama commercial released in advance of the trip.

An Obama adviser said the campaign is counting on the economy, rather than foreign policy, to be the top voting issue in November. But national security remains McCain's biggest advantage.

Voters, by a wide margin, see McCain as more likely to be an effective commander in chief, and Obama needs to close the gap in order to win, analysts say.

But Americans also know that the world's perception of the U.S. has changed during George W. Bush's presidency, largely as a consequence of international opposition to the Iraq invasion. Obama is seen as more likely than McCain to improve the country's image in the world as president, the latest CBS/New York Times poll found.

Obama also enjoys a lopsided advantage in the eyes of the foreign public, especially in Europe, where the presidential campaign is being followed almost as intensely as it is in the U.S., according to a 24-nation survey by the Pew Research Center.

Obama's trip won't eliminate doubts about his lack of international and national security experience, but assuming he avoids any slips, it would be a good first step.

"If he gets a rousingly positive reception, it's going to make Americans feel that perhaps he can help mend fences with our allies, which is what they want to see happen," says Andrew Kohut of the independent Pew Research Center.

"It could come across as a real celebration of Obama," he adds, magnified by media coverage more typical of the first overseas trip by a new president than a candidate who has yet to be nominated formally.

Will it change the shape of the presidential race? Unlikely. An ordinary swing voter in Ohio doesn't take cues from folks in Germany, England or France.

But in a presidential campaign, Kohut points out, "good publicity is good publicity."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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