POLITICS JULY 21, 2008
So is Barack Obama's foreign trip this week a critical addition to his presidential résumé? Or is it a farce? You'd never know from listening to the GOP. Late this spring, Republicans delighted in bashing Obama for his two-plus year absence from Iraq--the implication being that Obama wouldn't merit a Situation Room seat until he'd boarded a trans-Atlantic flight. But, as Obama's itinerary has taken shape in recent weeks, suddenly the McCain campaign has soured on the idea. On Thursday, McCain spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker complained that Obama's trip would be a "first-of-its-kind campaign rally overseas." McCain himself finally settled on a tentative compromise: Obama's stops in Iraq and Afghanistan would be kosher. But, "What Senator Obama does in the other countries, whether political rallies or not, obviously would then give them a political flavor to say the least." Got that?
It is, of course, hard to not to notice that the McCainiacs had been playing a bit of politics themselves, dwelling on Obama's lightly-used passport as evidence of his inexperience. Except that the politics abruptly changed when the Obamanauts called their bluff--and took every cameraman in the Amtrak corridor along for the ride. Somehow it didn't occur to the McCainiacs until too late that an Obama world tour might become the media event of the season. "[I]t certainly hasn't escaped us that the three network newscasts will originate from stops on Obama's trip," Hazelbaker sniffed to The New York Times last week.
Team McCain has a point. This past week has brought endless chatter about all the potential pitfalls and opportunities Obama faces. For the life of me, I'm having trouble identifying the former. Yes, a gaffe would be damaging amid all the glare. But so much more damaging than a gaffe at home? It's not like Obama's comments on the campaign trail don't already attract incredible scrutiny here and abroad. (The media, desperate to justify its saturation coverage, has taken pains to overdramatize the trip, with mixed results. As an example of the risks Obama may encounter abroad, USA Today dusted off his controversial comments about Jerusalem in June--comments he delivered at an AIPAC conference in Washington.)
More to the point, there won't be many opportunities for gaffes. Gaffes generally require a modicum of spontaneity. And the Obama expedition, far more so than the typical campaign appearance, is being stage managed to the extreme. Obama will be hauled in and out of meetings, as he was this weekend in Iraq and Afghanistan; he will wave alongside foreign leaders; he will pose before iconic vistas. But the words will be kept to a minimum, and when they're offered, they will most likely be offered to American reporters--like the three network news anchors all scrambling for face time. "It's not a knowledge quiz. It's more visceral than that," Richard Haass, a top former Bush State Department official told Time last week. "Americans need to have a sense that this person can hold his own." Translation: These trips are about atmospherics, with the foreign locales serving as sophisticated props.
And maybe not so sophisticated, come to think of it. A rough analogy for the Obama overseas extravaganza is The Daily Show's international "coverage": A correspondent stands in front of a green screen, the Eiffel Tower or the West Bank appears in the background, and voila!, a foreign dispatch is filed. Yes, Obama's actual backdrops will be more authentic. But I doubt we can say the same for his experiences.
Obama, as is his wont, actually lodged a version of this complaint during the primaries, when the topic was the knowledge Hillary had supposedly gleaned from her own globe-trotting: "You get picked up at the airport by a state convoy and a security detail. They drive you over to the ambassador's house and you get lunch. Then you go take a tour of some factory or some school. Children do a native dance." Replace "ambassador" with "chancellor" or "prime minister" and you have a reasonable summary of this week's itinerary. A term as National Security Advisor it is not.
If there's any risk to Obama, it's that the trip goes too well. The German press has touted polls showing that 72 percent of Germans would vote for Obama if given the chance. Very sweet, and I'm sure Obama is flattered and all. Except that there is a not-insignificant number of Americans who would reject Jesus Christ as their savior if 72 percent of Europeans were on board. On the other hand, this minority may roughly coincide with the dwindling number of Americans who still admire George W. Bush's circus-cowboy sensibility. For the rest of us, the prospect of an American president who doesn't have to be hustled through the international terminal to avoid spitballs and war-crimes indictments may come as a relief. (The Obama road show also risks drowning out this week's round of McCain economic gaffes, as Frank Rich pointed out. But John "a Google" McCain and Phil "nation of whiners" Gramm should still be here when he gets back.)
For all of this, the McCain campaign has only itself to blame. The problem with making an incredibly superficial critique of an opponent is that it can be rebutted incredibly superficially. The Democrats fell into this trap into the 1990s when, rather than critique Republicans on policy grounds, they denounced them as racist meanies. Then, as my colleague Jon Chait has written, Bush came along and surrounded himself with cute black and Hispanic kids. This didn't affect his policies one lick, but it did defuse the Democratic charges.
The McCain campaign made a similar mistake by equating Obama's foreign travel with his fitness to be president. As with the Democrats and Bush, they may have a case to make on the underlying merits. But, if things go according to plan for Obama this week, they will only have helped ensure it won't be heard.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.