Foreign trip was Obama's Tom Dewey moment

A friend from my school days in Zurich, still living in Switzerland, emailed me about Barack Obama’s recent trip to Europe. He summed up perfectly the prevailing reaction from Europeans about the Democrat nominee for president: “Oh, how wonderful it is [sic] to have a man of the world as America’s president!”

Leaving aside the now-familiar (if in this case unintended) presumptuousness that Obama supporters routinely exhibit, this simple statement validates how desperate the Europeans are for an “anti-Bush” – someone erudite, cultured, elegant in manner, and above all else, eager to embrace diplomacy in all its multilateral glory. Obama’s Berlin speech, while short of an “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment, was tailor made for a Europe that seeks an America in its own image – idealistic, nuanced and profoundly non-confrontational.

Unfortunately for the Obama campaign, however, the European trip, highlighted by his speech to 200,000 adoring Berliners in Germany, seems to have fallen flat here in America. In a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted just after the completion of the trip, Obama’s lead among likely voters evaporated in a 9 point swing, with McCain surging to a 4% lead over Obama -- reversing a pre-trip deficit of 5%.

Significantly, in separate questions, the poll shows that support for the view that he can handle the job of commander-in-chief, that he will do a good job on fighting terrorism and that he is capable of handling the war in Iraq all dropped as well. By these measures, Obama’s trip through the Middle East and Europe, which was designed to show that he was up to the job of dealing with foreign policy issues, must be seen as something of a failure. Many analysts, including The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, believe that Obama’s speech in Germany and his overall trip abroad may prove to be a negative tipping point in the election – something akin to a “Dukakis in the tank” moment.

Euro Skepticism

There are several reasons why Obama’s trip, so celebrated in Europe, backfired here in America. Many Americans remain skeptical of European values, motivations and judgment -- particularly on issues related to security and the war on terror. As one American recently said to me, “I’ll always love Paris and London as a place to visit; but if the Euros are for something, I generally think I should be against it.” The roots of this go deeper than just the lingering resentment many Americans still feel over French, German and Spanish opposition to the Iraq War. Though France’s President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel have worked to repair some of damage done by their predecessors, many Americans nonetheless feel that Europe can’t be counted on when needed.

The issue of Iran is a case in point: in a recent poll conducted by the BBC, over 60% of Americans favor strong economic sanctions or military action against Iran’s nuclear program, compared to only 34% in the U.K. and 37% in Germany. Europeans are far more likely to have faith in multilateral institutions and negotiations than do most Americans – a particularly important distinction given Obama’s stated willingness to meet with Iranian president Ahmadinejad without preconditions.

In addition, other polling seems to reinforce the notion that Americans, though clearly invested in a strong Atlantic Alliance, understand that there remain divisions with Europe. A recent poll by GlobeScan sponsored by the British Council found that “on average Americans characterize their views of Europeans as cooler than a friend but warmer than a casual acquaintance”.

Americans have generally lukewarm views of France (48% positive, 31% negative, 15% neutral), Spain (47% positive, 16% negative, 26% neutral) and Poland (41% positive, 15% negative, 30% neutral). Views of Turkey lean slightly negative (29% positive, 35% negative, 23% neutral). Only opinion of the UK (72% positive) and Germany (62%) were above 50%. Not exactly a love fest.

The Audacity of Hubris

This Euro-skepticism may provide some context to the Obama trip, but it is not in itself dispositive. The Obama campaign designed the trip as something of a pre-election “victory tour”, with all the elements of a state visit. The candidate spent time with heads-of-state, conducted presidential-style news conferences and soaked up the adulation of throngs of Europeans who came to catch a glimpse of him. It was covered by a fawning global media that literally gushed with his every appearance. In a sign of just how (self) important Obama saw his trip to Berlin, the campaign originally considered giving the speech from the Brandenburg Gate – the site two historic presidential speeches: JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” in 1963 and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech of 1987. Both of these speeches were given by actual sitting presidents who had proven their bona fides in the Cold War, not by a presidential candidate who hasn’t even become the official nominee of his party. Apparently, only after German Chancellor Merkel called the request “inappropriate” did the Obama campaign relent, finding another location for the speech.

Obama’s desire to speak at the Brandenburg Gate smacks of hubris, but it paled in comparison to his actions while in Berlin. His now infamous decision to cancel his visit with the wounded troops at the Ramstein and Landstuhl Medical Centers because he couldn’t turn it into a campaign event, was a PR disaster of the first order – particularly since he decided to work out at the gym at the Ritz Carlton instead. For a candidate that has stumbled badly among Clinton supporters in the heartland, and who famously made the “cling to religion and guns” remark in reference to them, Obama still doesn’t seem to understand that Americans dislike elitism. Not visiting U.S. troops wounded in battle because he couldn’t get any campaign mileage from it says to the American people that he doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices of ordinary Americans in uniform, and that consequently, he may not be fit to be commander-in-chief.

Another Dewey?

Finally, Obama’s European and Middle East tour had an air of presumptuousness about it. He flew in with his entourage as if he had already won the election, meeting with General Petraeus in Iraq and making it clear that, though the general opposed a withdrawal timetable, he as the future commander-in-chief knew best. The media coverage, which a majority of Americans now feel has been unfairly biased in Obama’s favor, was nothing short of fawning. His trip was a state visit in everything but name, even providing daily schedules that looked like carbon-copies of the schedules provided when George Bush travels abroad.

It is obviously news to the Democrats -- who are already redecorating the Oval Office -- but there is still an election to win in November. Americans are famous for rooting for the underdog – a position that John McCain has already won from in the Republican primaries earlier this year. The more the campaign, aided by the media, acts as if Obama’s victory is inevitable, the more they run the risk of appearing arrogant in the eyes of many voters. Many of the voters that Obama must win to achieve victory in this election still need to be wooed, convinced that Obama is worthy of their vote. They don’t want to be talked down to, taken for granted or dismissed. These voters aren't going to vote for him simply because he's black, or because he talks about "hope". In the end it will come down to real issues -- like national security, energy policy, the economy, taxes -- and Obama must have real answers. “Change" just won't cut it.

It might be wise for the Obama campaign to remember the story of Tom Dewey. Running in the 1948 election against an unpopular incumbent president (Harry Truman), Dewey ran well ahead the entire election. After 16 years of Democrat Party rule, it was widely seen to be a Republican year – it was time for change. The post-war economy was stagnant, the Soviet Union was ascendant, and the country was struggling with rebuilding Europe and Japan. Truman was seen to be competent but dull. Dewey, on the other hand, was the dashing Governor of New York, well-spoken, well-educated. A thoroughly modern man. The media was so convinced of a Dewey victory, that the Chicago Tribune went to press with that famous headline, “Dewey Beats Truman”, before all the votes were counted.

You already know the rest of the story.