Just a senator on a codel (wink)

First, the caveat. This column is being written before Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) trip to the Middle East and Europe is over. There is still the possibility, as many in the media have pointed out, for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to stumble. But as I write this, the campaign has done an admirable job of sending home one very clear message: This guy is ready to be commander in chief.

I’ve done a bit of advance work for presidential candidates in my time, and I know how difficult it is to get it right, even on familiar ground. So far, Obama’s team has performed beautifully, right down to the blue-and-white tie he wore Wednesday while laying a wreath at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. (I presume he changed out of that “Israeli flag tie” for his meetings later in the day with Palestinian leaders.)

Obama has taken pains to make the point that he’s traveling as just a senator. Making sure Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) appear with him at virtually every photo-op gives him cover for that story.

Just to make the point more forcefully, Susan Rice, his senior foreign policy adviser, put it on the record: “The United States of America has one president. That president is George W. Bush. Sen. Obama will not be engaged in any way, shape or form in negotiations or policymaking of the like.”

So (wink, wink) that makes clear that his slight disagreement with Gen. David Petraeus over troop withdrawals, the coincidental de facto endorsement of Obama’s position by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Israeli President Shimon Peres’s observation that “the future belongs to the young” and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s statement that he and Obama discussed and agreed on the importance of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power were nothing more than casual conversation. No policymaking here — and press conferences that were slim on positions as well. Although the candidate did make clear that if and when he is commander in chief he’ll listen to the generals but also factor other input into his decisions. Sound slightly different?

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., the presumptive Republican nominee has been making a muddled mess of trying to counter-program Obama’s world tour. The McCain campaign objected in advance to the coverage his rival was going to get, so the mainstream media went out of its way to make sure he got plenty of coverage.

McCain used that opportunity to make a couple of very big gaffes. After re-creating the country of Czechoslovakia a week ago, McCain rearranged the world map to give Iraq a border with Pakistan and erroneously claimed that the surge in U.S. troops had created the “Anbar Awakening,” forgetting that he cited Sunni sheiks beginning to do battle with al Qaeda in that province as a rationale for sending more troops to Iraq. Suddenly McCain seemed to be undermining his credentials as a foreign policy expert just as Obama is demonstrating that he can play on the world stage.

The big show is about to begin with Obama’s trip to Germany Thursday. While the McCain camp has had some success spinning their argument that Obama is running for president of Europe, I sincerely doubt many Americans will see it that way. A few columnists and television anchors may buy the argument that huge favorable crowds in Europe will turn off folks in Middle America, but we’re likely to see exactly the opposite response. Sure, Americans don’t like to be told what to do by European leaders. But a number of polls I’ve seen show voters resent our diminished status in the world. As an issue it isn’t up there with the economy, healthcare or Iraq, but it does register. America could use a few friends right now and Obama may help us get them.

Two of America’s great political icons, JFK and Ronald Reagan, drew huge crowds and created memorable phrases in Berlin. Obama wisely chose not to return to the scene of Reagan’s historic “tear down this wall” speech, but he will most certainly be addressing a huge crowd somewhere in the city — a speech likely to be followed by enthusiastic receptions throughout Europe. Most Americans realize we need allies in today’s world and having a leader who is popular in European democracies is far preferable to the contempt shown for our current president. Barring some glaring misstep, Barack Obama will return from Europe and the Middle East with more support in his homeland than when he left.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com