Will Obama's rock-star moment in Berlin backfire?

The world has been bewitched by his tour. But Americans are less impressed

David Usborne
Saturday 26 July 2008 00:00 BST
(2008 Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Don't say "Mission Accomplished" because it's risky in American politics. But at least in one respect, it will surely be what Barack Obama is feeling as he lands back on native soil this evening. He has got some first-rate foreign affairs footage in the can for the remainder of his campaign until November.

"Me with the President of France". "Me with the Prime Minister of Iraq". "Me in front of 200,000 adoring Germans!"

No longer will John McCain quite so easily be able to portray Mr Obama as a baby-faced neophyte who doesn't know his Basra from his backside. That's a very good thing.

And most Americans will have absorbed some of these images even if they weren't following his nine-day trip minute by minute. All the main broadcast news anchors were with him at least part of the way. Cable news viewers had the chance to watch the vaunted Berlin speech live if they were not at work.

A sidelined Mr McCain has meanwhile been grumpier than ever. Appearing with the cycling hero Lance Armstrong in Ohio on Thursday, he again accused the media in the United States of Obama-worship.

"My opponent, of course, is travelling in Europe, and tomorrow his tour takes him to France. In a scene Lance would recognise, a throng of adoring fans awaits Senator Obama in Paris. And that's just the American press," he said.

And yet what are the dividends for Mr Obama from this trip? New polls – admittedly done before the bravura of Berlin – carry worrying trends for his campaign. Is he pulling away from the white-haired grouch? No. There are signs of a fresh backlash against him in the media.

The word from the "fly-over states" – otherwise known as the heartland – meanwhile, was "What about us?" "What about our economy?" Or as one Pennsylvania voter put it, it's great if the Germans love him but they ain't voting in November.

Thus yesterday, Mr Obama found himself defending spending so much time abroad. He has used it to lobby for more European troops in Afghanistan, he told CNN. That will mean fewer American troops there, "which means we are spending fewer billions of dollars and we can invest those billions of dollars in making sure that we providing tax cuts to middle-class families struggling with gas prices".

It's a connection they may have a tough time making in factory towns of Michigan or the farming communities of Colorado. But he pressed on yesterday: "I also wouldn't underestimate the degree to which the people in Ohio or people in Michigan or people in Missouri recognise that our long-term safety and our long-term security is going to depend on how we are going to interact with our key allies." Even his allies worry that that kind of logic will be lost on voters.

"At a time in which Americans are turning inward, fearful of a weak economy and wary of foreign engagements, Obama's message is a tough sell at home," commented Nancy Soderberg, a former senior foreign policy aide to Bill Clinton.

What does Mr Obama underestimate? The risks of hubris? (A reminder to some in Germany: he is candidate Obama, not President Obama.) Or how irritating it is to see Europeans going batty for him?

At least he didn't speak before 200,000 people in Paris, because Americans are suspicious of the French as we know. Oh, but then President Nicolas Sarkozy said those things in an interview with Le Figaro. "Obama? He's my pal. Unlike my diplomatic advisers, I never believed in Hillary Clinton's chances. I always said that Obama would be nominated." The Hillary folk are going to love that.

Nine days of Obama on the tube with foreign leaders and applauding citizens must have been golden, you would think.

So how come The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll at the end of last week was saying that the Senator still has a national lead of just 6 points over Mr McCain, the same as in June?

The Republican National Committee thinks it interesting too. "Despite the most challenging environment for Republicans in years and an overwhelming advantage in attention paid by the media, Barack Obama remains unable to open the lead against John McCain that many pundits predicted."

Worse, the same poll said that 58 per cent of Americans feel more attuned to the background and personal values of Mr McCain than those of Mr Obama.

The Illinois Senator had a genuine need to demonstrate that he is in touch with the foreign affairs agenda. There are two wars going on after all.

But now he is back home, he might consider dropping altitude a bit and work harder at getting in touch with regular, penny-pinched American voters. Because if he has closed the deal with the Germans, he hasn't yet with the people he needs in November. Americans.

What the US media said

*LOS ANGELES TIMES: "Several new surveys show that Obama is in a tight race or even losing ground to Republican John McCain, both nationally and in two important swing states, Colorado and Minnesota. One new poll offered a possible explanation for his troubles: A minority of voters see Obama as a familiar figure with whom they can identify"

*NEW YORK SUN: "So Barack Obama, whose father is from Kenya and who attended school in Indonesia, now appears before a crowd of 200,000 cheering Germans in Berlin to proclaim himself a "citizen of the world". It makes you wonder whether he's running for president of America or secretary general of the United Nations, and it is reminiscent of Senator Kerry's ill-fated 2004 debate pledge to subject American policies to a 'global test'."

*THE NATION: "When George W Bush talks about 'freedom', Europe groans. When Barack Obama invokesthe same word, Berlin cheers. Obama reframed the debate – and reclaimed the word – with his spectacular speech in Berlin today."

*Dallas Morning News: "The Obama speech no doubt played well in Berlin – but what about in Peoria? The Obama campaign ran a real risk scheduling this address in a European capital at a time when Americans are suffering from the worst economic crisis in at least a generation ... After all, Mr Obama is running to be president of the United States, not king of the world."

*New York Daily News: "Obama's got the world in his hands; McCain looks flatfooted" (headline)

Parody restores the balance

Who says the American media pays too much attention to Barack Obama and ignores John McCain? Vanity Fair has restored some partisan balance, publishing online a phoney front cover that mimics the recent New Yorker cover lampooning the lies told about Barack Obama and his wife.

It is not clear how much The New Yorker will appreciate being reminded of the brouhaha over its image of Obama and Michelle in the Oval Office dressed as extremists.

Vanity Fair takes the same cartoon, but substitutes the McCains. The one propped up on a walker with bandages on his forehead, the other popping pills. (Cindy, we know, has a pain-killer addiction issue.)

Both titles belong to Condé Nast and Vanity Fair insists it is merely showing sisterly solidarity. "Heaven knows we've published our share of scandalous images, on the cover and otherwise," the magazine said. "So we've been watching the kerfuffle over last week's New Yorker cover with a mixture of empathy and better-you-than-us relief."

The Vanity Fair version will remain on its website and will not be seen on the shelves. Judging by the avalanche of criticism that struck The New Yorker, that is probably wise.

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