Obama tests delicate balance

President pursues ambitious schedule of international travel at the risk of appearing to neglect domestic concerns

April 08, 2009|By Peter Nicholas and Mike Dorning | Peter Nicholas and Mike Dorning,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -When Americans learned that unemployment had reached its highest level in a quarter-century last week, President Barack Obama was midway through a star turn in Europe. And next week, with barely time to pack fresh shirts and refuel Air Force One, he's off again - first to Mexico, then on to a summit in the Caribbean.

It's the sort of thing that can get a political leader into trouble, jetting out of town while the home front suffers.

But Obama's strategists laid out a plan to minimize the risks.

At the G-20 summit and the accompanying bilateral meetings with allies, Obama sidestepped potential divisions so as to project a reassuring image of a new president rallying world leaders over the economic crisis. And immediately upon returning to the White House, he launches into a series of public events and private meetings devoted to the recession.

Beyond such specific steps to underscore his focus on the economy, Obama strategists see his foreign travel as satisfying another domestic political need: the longing of many Americans to view their president as a global leader commanding respect for himself and his country.

During the presidential campaign, Obama advisers conducted focus groups that showed voters were unhappy with the nation's diminished standing and wanted the next president to restore America's reputation abroad.

Because of that desire, televised images of the new president and his wife moving comfortably on the world stage get an enthusiastic reception back home, some strategists say, instead of stirring anxiety that he might be neglecting domestic concerns.

Yet even some of Obama's supporters are nervous about the timing of the trips. They worry that meetings with heads of state and other bits of stagecraft might suggest a detachment from the concerns of ordinary people.

James Carville, an architect of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992, said the weeklong, multiple-country trip would range from either a "neutral" to "a slight positive" for Obama but could possibly turn out to be a mistake.

"People have been calling [White House aides]," Carville said, to deliver the message that "foreign trips aren't what they used to be. We got a recession back here."

As fits the pattern established when Obama traveled abroad as a presidential candidate, his White House team is moving quickly to minimize any backlash.

Even before he returned, aides were planning an event to highlight the number of homeowners who have benefited from refinancing their mortgages. The event is now planned for next week - before he leaves the country again.

Research done by the Obama campaign offered some reassurance that Americans would be receptive to the foreign trip that just ended. Internal campaign surveys showed that voters wanted to see the United States' international stature improved.

For those who may not particularly care about such things, Obama is offering up another argument: Their jobs may depend on better conditions internationally.

In a news conference at the G-20 summit in London, he was asked how his participation might help families struggling back home.

Obama replied that for American companies to avoid layoffs, world markets must be healthy. He used the example of Caterpillar, a company in his home state of Illinois, which makes construction equipment.

"As a consequence of the world recession, as a consequence of the contagion from the financial markets debilitating the economies elsewhere, Caterpillar is now in very bad shape," Obama said. "So if we want to get Caterpillar back on its feet, if we want to get all those export companies back on their feet, so that they are hiring, putting people back to work, putting money in people's pockets, we've got to make sure that the global economy as a whole is successful."

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