Obama’s overseas trip : A rip-roaring success

Will I upset you if I offer the observation that, to us in America, the British leg of Barack Obama’s tour came across as a bit of an afterthought? A Shakespearean coda, after the bodies have fallen and the swords have been re-sheathed and one of the side characters steps forward to offer a little homiletic summation. Even Obama admirers such as myself were starting to suffer phenomenon fatigue and to think: “Enough already, dude. Come home and campaign.”

But stop me — I don’t want to feed into that ridiculous rightwing narrative about Obama thinking he’s the messiah. He’s a politician. He happens to have special talents, to which some people respond passionately. Others don’t. But that’s their problem. The Beatles didn’t order millions of teenage girls to scream, and Obama did not put pixie dust in America’s, or the world’s, watercoolers. He’s hardly responsible for people’s positive reactions to him.

He must, however, be pretty pleased overall. While the trip will not have the effect of making Americans en masse rise up and carry his banner and declare the election over, I think it’s safe to say that he’s banked some goodwill and credibility whose domestic political benefits will reveal themselves slowly and become more apparent this autumn, perhaps especially during the three presidential debates.

Before we look more deeply at the trip, let’s take a step back. It’s now almost exactly 100 days until the election. It’s late July. The campaign begins in earnest in early September. Your average American voter is someone who votes only in presidential elections, and pays attention only from mid-September to early November.

This voter undoubtedly knows that Obama just took a big trip and will have seen the images, and may even be able to name one substantive thing that happened during the trip. But this voter still doesn’t know that much about Obama. She or he is going to have to spend a lot of timing watching him over the course of the autumn and thinking about whether to put him in the White House — just as she or he is going to watch John McCain to see if he’s the old, familiar McCain who was independent-minded and went his own way or if he’s this new, shrunken McCain who never met a rightwing orthodoxy he couldn’t embrace.

This explains why the race remains close, at four or five or six points. People are still getting to know Obama and they’re still trying to get their heads around the new and unimproved McCain. So they’re going to watch the conventions and the debates (the last is on October 15) and the candidate’s responses to events, and they’re probably going to hang fire for some time while they do so. If I had to guess right now, I’d say that barring some unforeseeable bombshell about either man, Obama will reassure more voters than not that he’s the better choice for the moment (plus, his nationwide armada of workers and volunteers will do a more thorough job of getting the already-converted to the polls). But it’ll take time. And this is where some of the things that happened on this trip will come back into play when it matters.

Most notable among them is Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki’s stated support for Obama’s withdrawal timetable. That July Christmas gift will enable Obama to say, in the debates and on the stump, that he and the Iraqi leader — George Bush’s man in Baghdad, no less — are on the same page about the future. That’s a pretty strong card to play with regard to a war that’s costing $10bn a month and that most Americans want to see end sooner rather than later. McCain has a fair point about the troops surge, but it’s doubtful that argument about something that happened two years ago will quite match what’s essentially an endorsement from the Iraqi leader about the future. Only a little less important was the Israel leg of the trip. Shimon Peres was most effusive, praising Obama’s “moving humanity” and, without exactly saying so, making it crystal clear who his preferred candidate is.

The other elements of the Israel dates came off without a hitch. The forces in America and Israel that don’t want a settlement with the Palestinians will perform their mischief between now and November, but they represent a minority viewpoint in America. Obama already leads McCain two-to-one among Jews, and well-timed reminders of Obama’s experiences in Israel should pump that up to the usual three-to-one Democratic advantage.

And finally, Obama is substantively right to talk about the strategic importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban have regrouped and Al Qaeda is amassed. His successful meetings in Afghanistan reinforce that message.

Obama still has a lot of convincing to do. And McCain, if the past week was any template, is clearly going to run a very negative campaign. Now that Obama’s back home, he needs to start punching back, since he probably felt constrained from doing so while overseas, and plotting how to make this trip’s ultimate dividends pay out in October. — The Guardian