Obama's Rashomonic Trip
Barack Obama's mid-summer overseas trip might remind you of the a runner who begins to train for a marathon a few days before the starting gun. Or it might be the start of a new golden age of American diplomacy, where an American (would-be) president is embraced by foreign leaders and peoples. Or it might be a political trip by a political campaign for a political purpose and thus deserving of the intense scrutiny it will get.
Reporters know more about Obama's itinerary than is safe to say; we know who he's meeting with -- Olmert, Abas, Abdullah, Sarkozy, Merkel and Brown -- and we know when, but the campaign has asked us to keep the times and dates a secret for security reasons, and we've collectively obliged.
I received a phone call yesterday from a reporter at the Scotsman who wanted to know why the Obama campaign was obsessed with Germany and wanted Obama's signature event to take place at the Brandenburg Gate. Shades of a Franco-German axis among Obama's advisers? Not really, I said. It's more that Germany's press had the good fortune to break the story of Obama's expected itinerary and the resulting controversy that developed. (Obama will speak elsewhere in Berlin.) No, there will be plenty of attention devoted to the Anglo-American friendship. I doubt Obama will say much about Europe, per se.
Here's what the Obama campaign wants to get out of the trip:
# Lots of good images; Obama meeting with commanders; Obama meeting with different types of people; crowds spontaneously forming outside Obama events -- these all look presidential and serious and convey gravity.
# A foothold toward the goal of wrestling the Iraq issue back from John McCain. Obama's identity inseparable from his 2002 judgment on Iraq, and yet half the country agrees with John McCain.
# By osmosis, the idea, planted in the heads of independent voters, that Obama is a president who will make you feel proud to be an American again; attention Obama is sure to receive will be a reproach to Bush and McCain... a president, an American, who can be a model for the world.
And here's what Obamaskeptics will be looking for:
Krauthammerian signs of hubris and messianic fervor. (Most of Obama's events will be small and pooled press; the Obama campaign is aware of the need for their guy to seem, at once, humble and humbled.)
Gaffes or opportunities to exploit his relative lack of experience.
And here's what political analysts will be looking for:
# Does this trip help Obama connect to common concerns? His affluent, educated audience will applaud his diplomatic endeavor and his efforts to restore America's image in the world. In 2004, that message would be alienating to other voters; in 2008, it may well help him. What do voters think?
# How Obama handles the pressure and scrutiny of the world stage.
# Obviously, what he says about Iraq and what leaders of other countries say to him about Iraq and the Middle East.
# How the Obama campaign handles efforts by the White House and the McCain campaign to undercut him.