How Obama's foreign tour plays at home

He burnished his foreign policy credentials, analysts say, but will his Berlin speech backfire?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The Obama trip may represent a 'make or break' moment in the presidential campaign. – Vince Gray, aspiring high school teacher in Decatur, Ga.
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    'He had Europe eating out of his hand.' – Elizabeth Vantine, Atlanta resident, about Obama's recent trip to Europe and the Middle East.
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Now that Barack Obama is back on Terra Americana – after a whirlwind week of foreign travel and blanket news coverage – the probable Democratic presidential nominee knows he has to get back to the issue closest to voters' hearts: the US economy.

The Illinois senator said as much to reporters in London just before he flew home, noting that his poll numbers might even dip in the immediate future. "We have been out of the country for a week," he said. "People are worried about gas prices and home foreclosures."

And in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" broadcast Sunday, Senator Obama said he will meet with his top economic advisers on Monday, including investor Warren Buffett, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. The agenda includes a second economic stimulus package and the high cost of energy. But there is little doubt that in taking the eight-nation tour, Obama has altered the calculus of the presidential race, even if any effect on voters may not be known for a while. By visiting Iraq (for the second time) and Afghanistan (for the first time), Obama has answered the charge of his Republican opponent, John McCain, that he had given these fronts in the war on terror short shrift. By appearing comfortable in the company of world leaders in both the Middle East and Europe, he has sought to counter the charge that he is too inexperienced to be commander in chief.

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There was never any doubt that Obama is popular in Europe, but the arresting visual of him appearing before a crowd of some 200,000 people in Berlin will endure as an iconic image of the 2008 presidential campaign, no matter who wins. It may also be that foreign Obamamania ends up hurting him with the very demographic he most needs to woo: white working-class voters. But with American voters overall, the portion who consider the US's tarnished image abroad to be a major problem is on the rise – 56 percent, up from 43 percent four years ago, according to the Pew Research Center.

"Tactically, the trip was a smart thing to do," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. "There was a possibility that he would make a mistake, but he didn't.... In addition, it allowed him to address the thing that McCain was hammering before – his lack of foreign policy experience. This does not constitute the equivalent of two years in the presidency, but it does demonstrate that he's certainly not out of his depth."

During the trip, Obama also got the benefit of an announcement from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he supported a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq similar to Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan.

But the European portion of the trip may have been less unequivocally successful. The Berlin speech, which was aimed at a European audience, could revive a Republican talking point similar to one they used against John Kerry, the Democratic nominee four years ago – that he "would seek a 'permission slip' before the US could act," says Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont-McKenna College in California.

Though the trip is over, the McCain campaign is still trying to puncture the impression that it proceeded nearly flawlessly. McCain has released an ad that includes criticism of Obama for canceling a visit to wounded US troops in Germany. The trip was canceled so as to avoid the appearance of politicizing war casualties, but the ad charged that Obama preferred to go to the gym.

Obama himself has tried to play down expectations over the trip's potential payoff with voters. "[It] may not be decisive for the average voter right now, given our economic troubles, but it's knowledge they can store in the back of their minds for when they go into the polling place later," Obama told The Washington Post in Paris.

In interviews with Monitor reporters in battleground states, likely voters offered mixed reactions to Obama's trip.

Roseanne Cunningham, a nurse in Rockledge, Penn., is a Republican who is undecided about how she'll vote. She does not like McCain's policies toward Iraq, but she says she now thinks worse of Obama for taking his foreign trip. "If he was serious about knowing what's going on over there, he should have done it sooner," she says.

Kathy Wolfe of New Ringgold, Penn., another undecided Republican, says she thinks Obama should "be home convincing the American people to vote for him, rather than getting the world to vote for him."

"I get the impression that he thinks he's already won the election," says Ms. Wolfe, a graphic designer.

In Denver, even among Obama supporters, reaction was mixed. One such voter, Doug Richardson, says Obama "met all the right people, he did all the right things."

But Gretchen Bunn, also of Denver, isn't so sure that Obama didn't go overboard. "I think he overstepped his bounds and started acting presidential before he's even president," says Ms. Bunn, a saleswoman.

She calls herself a "big supporter" of Obama but thinks the trip makes him look arrogant, a label that his opponents have been trying to make stick to the presumptive Democratic candidate, especially by meeting with heads of state in such an overtly public way.

In Atlanta, Obama did seal the deal with at least some voters. Della Augustine, who is African-American, says Obama's appearance in Berlin removed her reservations. "I was waiting for him to make a blunder and show his inexperience," she says. "But he never did."

In casual conversations in Atlanta's version of Greenwich Village, Little Five Points, many people expressed a high degree of satisfaction with Obama's statesman-like performance as he traversed the continents from Baghdad to Berlin.

But Vince Gray, an aspiring high school history teacher and, on first blush, also a shoo-in Obama supporter, pointed out that the voting booth is a complex sanctuary. In fact, he still can't say for sure who he'll pull the lever for come November.

Yet last week's rare display of European solidarity with a US statesman is likely to be a "make or break" moment in a campaign where undecided US voters may be ready to take cues from European sentiments, says Mr. Gray.

Elizabeth Vantine, a self-described Socialist, says she's known for a while that Obama will be her choice come November. But even she was taken aback by Obama's reception on the Continent. "He had Europe eating out of his hand," she says.

The trip, Ms. Vantine says, showcased that the senator's relative lack of formal foreign policy experience can potentially be supplanted by his personal experiences as a biracial man in America, growing up, she says, "as someone who is neither fish nor fowl, and who had to learn how to use his smile to put out fires."

Zoe Tillman in Philadelphia, Mike Farrell in Denver, and Patrik Jonsson in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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