Globalization has hit American presidential politics.
As never before, the two main candidates have carved out international itineraries that are taking them to major world capitals and hot spots – a diversion from the usual hopscotch campaign map that tends to favor the swing regions of, say, Ohio and Florida.
For Republican John McCain, multiple trips to Iraq, a recent visit to Canada, and a swing through Latin America that begins Tuesday showcase an already strong international profile from his Navy years, followed by more than two decades on the Senate Armed Services Committee. A meeting (and photo op) in Washington last Saturday with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani shows that Senator McCain doesn't even need to leave the country to burnish his foreign-policy credentials.
For Democrat Barack Obama, a multinational tour of Europe and the Middle East scheduled for mid-July aims to add some heft to the Illinois senator's light foreign-policy résumé – and, in Europe at least, tap into the Obamamania that's already in full flower.
America's image abroad has taken a major hit during the Bush presidency, with an unpopular US-led war in Iraq and positions on global warming at odds with much of the developed world. Both candidates seem eager to repair that. But the messages will be aimed as much at American voters as at foreign audiences.
"They will be saying, 'Yes, as a political candidate, I am doing the things that are necessary to ensure American leadership abroad,'" says Tom Henriksen, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "So they reassure the electorate."
Obama to visit Iraq
Senator Obama has announced visits to Israel, Jordan, Britain, France, and Germany. Campaign advisers say he also plans to visit Iraq and Afghanistan this summer, but have declined to release details for security reasons. Obama has visited Iraq only once, on a congressional delegation in 2006, a point of derision for McCain, who has visited Iraq eight times. McCain had proposed they visit Iraq together, but Obama dismissed that as a "political stunt."
Obama has opposed the Iraq war from the start, a major contrast point between him and McCain. On GOP.com, Republicans have fixated on Obama's paucity of Iraq visits by clocking down to the second how long it's been since he last visited (904 days, as of Monday).
The McCain camp called Obama's plan to go to Iraq and Afghanistan "a good thing," then goaded him to change his policy views. "Hopefully he will be moved by the facts on the ground," campaign adviser Carly Fiorina said in a conference call with reporters. "He will have to acknowledge that the surge is working, and perhaps this will cause him to change his position."
Of course, given the level of security that will surround Obama, this will be no ordinary visit. But at least he is likely to have contact with generals and ordinary US soldiers, a photo op that can't help but boost his image as a potential commander in chief – assuming there are no gaffes. Obama has no military experience, and polls show him losing to McCain in handling of security matters. Obama has argued that judgment is more important than experience.
In his visit to Europe, where Obama enjoys sky-high approval ratings, there could be a downside to all the adulation. After all, his immediate need is to win over white, working-class American voters, not European elites. In a Newsweek column last week, BBC anchor Matt Frei warned against the perils of Obamamania, noting that the pleadings of foreigners don't necessarily translate to votes in the American heartland. In 2004, "Britain's Guardian newspaper didn't help when it called on its readers to write to every single voter in Clark County, Ohio, beseeching them to vote for [Democratic nominee John] Kerry," Mr. Frei writes.
McCain targets Hispanics
McCain's trip this week to Colombia and Mexico is likely to be a lower-key affair than Obama's foreign travels. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Arizona senator will be in Cartagena, Colombia, meeting with President Alvaro Uribe to discuss trade and narcotics. Democrats in Congress are holding up a free-trade pact with Colombia that has come to symbolize growing opposition among American workers to a range of free-trade pacts, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On Thursday, McCain will meet with Mexican president Felipe Calderon to discuss bilateral cooperation in the fight against drug cartels. McCain is not expected to do or say anything that would depart from Bush administration policy, even as he tries to distance himself from an unpopular president.
Aside from highlighting his foreign-policy credentials outside the Middle East, McCain's Latin American foray is probably aimed at Hispanics in the US – a fast-growing and pivotal voter bloc. Last Saturday, at a convention of US Latino leaders, both candidates delivered speeches touting the benefits of immigration, even as McCain seeks to reassure the GOP base that he favors securing the US-Mexican border before pushing for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
McCain's most recent foreign trip was to Ottawa, on June 20, where he spoke to the Economic Club of Canada. According to an AP report, he told reporters that this was "not a political campaign trip." But then in his speech he indirectly criticized Obama (though not by name) over his suggestions that the NAFTA needs to be revised and renegotiated.
"Demanding unilateral changes and threatening to abrogate an agreement that has increased trade and prosperity is nothing more than retreating behind protectionist walls," he said.
Given the woes of American workers, McCain was certainly on safer ground making that comment in Canada than in Michigan or Pennsylvania. But among much of the Republican base, support for free trade is an article of faith. And as he continues to solidify his support within the GOP, trade is one area where McCain can be expected to stay firmly on the reservation.