The Obama Road Show

The promise and peril of the Obama world tour.

Sen. Barack Obama

Barack Obama has found a great new way to help voters imagine him as an occupant of the office he doesn’t have yet. He’s dropped the widely mocked faux presidential seal, but when he heads overseas Sunday, he’ll take an accessory with real power: three television network anchors.

The anchors are a big coup for Obama as he heads to Europe, the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They confer instant legitimacy. McCain, like Hillary Clinton before him, is arguing that Obama isn’t qualified to be commander in chief, but the networks are treating him like he’s already got the job. Each one will get an interview on a different night, which means Obama stands to control at least three days of news coverage in a campaign in which candidates are lucky if they can shape a few hours. The rest of the press horde following Obama and the expected adoring crowds of cheering Europeans will only enhance the presidential tableau.

If it comes off as the campaign hopes, with a steady flow of images of Obama looking thoughtful, diplomatic, and commanding on the world stage, the trip helps Obama address his key weakness, perhaps permanently. The polls show Obama with a slew of advantages over John McCain—his supporters are more numerous, more enthusiastic, and people trust him on a wide range of issues. But on issues of national security and foreign affairs, Obama trails badly. In the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, when voters are asked which candidate would be a good commander in chief, McCain clobbers Obama by 24 points (72 to 48), and when voters are asked which candidate knows enough about world affairs to serve effectively as president, McCain beats him by 16 points (72 to 56).

The trip to Europe presents the best chance Obama may get all campaign long to bump up these numbers. Because of the other factors that favor him—and his edge on economic issues, which voters say worry them the most—he won’t have to convince voters that he is better than McCain on the commander-international front. Instead, it should be enough to show that he is sufficiently qualified to handle the job. If enough voters feel safe with him, they can feel free to embrace the other reasons they like him.

At the same time, the trip poses big risks. Here are a few that could turn Obama Does Europe into a nightmare:

  1. The Big Gaffe: All those cameras mean any substantive slip-up will be magnified. There’s no indication that the Obama team will be letting the foreign press question him, and for good reason—they’re often tougher than the U.S. press corps, in part because they don’t have to worry about long-term access. If they do get to fire some questions, the threat of trouble goes up. Also, in the war zones where Obama might wear a protective helmet and flak jacket, there’s the danger that a wayward picture might make him look ill at ease, shades of Michael Dukakis taking his infamous tank ride. You’ll know the Obama team played it right if you see a limited number of photographs—or perhaps none at all—of the candidate in protective gear.
  2. The Ugly American: Obama is very popular in Europe. He’ll be well-received, and that may delight many Americans who don’t like what George Bush has done to the country’s reputation. He’ll also have an opportunity to match the nice pictures with words about his larger foreign-policy plans, which stress diplomacy over muscle, in contrast to McCain and Bush. But Obama can’t look like he agrees with Europe that only he can save America from its racist, backward ways. The Obama team is aware of this pitfall. Obama will have a chance to talk about America’s good side while he’s in Europe in a way that will appeal to Main Street back home.
  3. Phony Junket: McCain’s team will charge that Obama isn’t working; he’s just going overseas to make pretty pictures. In diplomatic relations, good pictures and goodwill matter, but there’s truth to this charge—he’s not going to Germany or Iraq to negotiate a treaty or anything. No real work is being done, but the Obama campaign will strive to give the impression that the senator is listening and evaluating, particularly when he visits Iraq and Afghanistan, even if he’s not likely to change his position on those wars. But the Washington Post editorial page and the McCain campaign have criticized Obama for stubbornly refusing to acknowledge improvements in Iraq. How Obama shows he can listen to commanders on the ground and yet not change may be his biggest test.
  4. Hubris Alert: Who does Obama think he is? He’s not the president. He’s not even his party’s official nominee yet. Obama has no shortage of self-confidence. If the trip looks a little too presumptuous, voters who have doubts about his experience might wonder where he gets off acting a part they haven’t given him yet.

Meanwhile, back on our side of the Atlantic, how will the McCain campaign try to break into the three days of presidential-seeming news coverage? McCain will spend the week talking about the economy in town halls in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, emphasizing his plan for drilling for oil, which his campaign aides think is popular, and generally seeming serious-minded about domestic problems while the other guy is off gallivanting with foreigners.

Obama appears to have such an opportunity to sail next week that several Republican veteran political advisers I talked to suggested McCain shouldn’t even bother engaging his opponent directly while he’s overseas. With all the footage of Obama trading smiles with heads of state, McCain could just look fussy by comparison. Plus, if he fires off a zinger from the back of his campaign bus, voters might think it’s in bad taste for him to pick on Obama when he’s on foreign soil. (Obama may be his opponent, but why make a fellow American look bad when he’s across the pond?)

This irritates McCain aides, who remind me that Democrats had no problem attacking McCain when he’s out of the country, and particularly when he visits Iraq. In advance of Obama’s trip, staffers on the other side were already trying to paint it as a political stunt. It’s a familiar theme. Arguing that Obama is just a regular old politician tarnishes his brand as the candidate of change. To drive his point home, the McCain campaign issued a nearly eight-minute “documentary” titled “Whatever the Politics Demand,” comparing Obama’s various statements on Iraq. That’s their shot. Now Obama has a week to respond (and change the subject) with his own images.