The Presumptive - and Presumptuous - Nominee

The Presumptive - and Presumptuous - Nominee

By Toby Harnden - July 25, 2008

There was a spring in Barack Obama's step and a sense of heady excitement in the air as he took to the stage beside Berlin's Victory column for his latest Big Speech. Members of his expansive entourage could have been forgiven for dreaming about the West Wing offices they will occupy in January.

By any yardstick, the first half of the Illinois senator's foreign tour was everything his campaign staff had wished for and a little bit more. Wherever he went, world leaders wanted to bask in his reflected glory as the presumed next president.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq's welcoming gift was an endorsement of Obama's troop withdrawal plan. King Abdullah of Jordan was happy to be his limo driver in Amman while Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted she "wouldn't resist" another presidential back massage.

No wonder some in corridors of London's Foreign Office fear that Obamamania has taken such a grip on 10 Downing Street that the eagerness of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his acolytes to get a sprinkling of the stardust might alienate John McCain.

Back in the United States, photographs of Obama in shades and headphones besides a respectful General David Petraeus looking out over Baghdad from a Black Hawk helicopter set the tone from the get go.

They screamed commander-in-chief and man of action even without being shown alongside footage of John McCain and President George H. W. Bush tooling around in a golf cart looking like two wayward seniors who'd escaped from a Florida rest home.

Obama sank a three-pointer basket with troops in Afghanistan. McCain stood in front of rows of cheese in a supermarket in Bethlehem, Pa. Obama flew into Berlin to a crowd of 200,000. Weather forced McCain to abandon a trip to a Louisiana oil rig so he settled for munching on "best of the wurst" at a German "sausage haus" in Columbus, Ohio.

Team McCain seemed frustrated by the way the week unfolded. Having goaded Obama into visiting Iraq, McCain must have been ruing that he had not been more careful what he'd wished for.

But for all the adulation abroad, Obama is nowhere near sealing the deal at home. The latest WSJ/NBC poll gives him a modest six-point lead over McCain. Dig down into the detail and there are some warning signs for Obama.

McCain has as 11-point advantage in terms of background and values that voters identify with. By a 20-point margin, voters consider Obama the riskier choice at a time when America is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and facing a global threat from militant Islamists. Far from being the referendum on the Bush years that most Democratic strategists want, the central election theme is whether Americans can go for Obama.

Certainly, Obama needed to boost his commander-in-chief credentials and his world jaunt may well do just that. But his globe trotting took him away from the bread-and-butter economic issues that the November election might well turn on. And the images of McCain plowing a lonely furrow in Ohio and New Hampshire while Obama whoops it up with adoring anchors in foreign capitals might make some voters feel the Republican is more in touch with their concerns.

Despite the justifiable accusations that much of the media has a crush on Obama, members of his traveling press corps - the people who are central to shaping the day-to-day coverage and can easily turn on a candidate - don't quite see it that way.

On the O-Force One campaign plane (newly fitted out complete with a chair embroidered with "Obama '08/President" for the man Republicans like to mock as "the One") there has been friction over what some journalists view as growing arrogance in Obamaland.

When Jim Steinberg, Bill Clinton's former national security adviser, told reporters that during four years in the White House he had never had to go on the record for a briefing there was a chorus of retorts that Obama wasn't in the White House.

The same day, during a testy exchange in which Team Obama persisted with the preposterous contention that the Berlin speech was not a campaign event, Susan Rice, another Obama foreign policy aide, was also accused of hubris.

"It is not going to be a political speech,' she said. "When the President of the United States goes and gives a speech, it is not a political speech or a political rally." A reporter reminded her: "But he is not President of the United States."

The images of Obama's Berlin speech were grand and the address itself, though far from one of his best and almost devoid of policy substance, would have been a pretty decent one had it been delivered after he had won the White House.

But he is not President of the United States. The sham humility of announcing that "I speak to you not as a candidate for President but as a citizen" came across as simply disingenuous. Saying that "I know that I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken here" seemed like a craven attempt to invoke comparisons with John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Appealing to the notion of "global citizenship" and the planet's population to "come together to save the world" might not play that well in Peoria. It's difficult to disagree with the notion that "my country has not perfected itself" but to say it in Europe - to cheers - is a different issue.

Those concerned that Obama might be elitist or lacking in patriotism will not have been reassured by his modified stump speech riff: "People of Berlin - people of the world - this is our moment, this is our time."

Obama's whole trip has apparently been aimed at American voters. No foreign reporters were granted places on his O-Force One and the only interviews he's deigned to give so far have been to the American big shots. There's a gnashing of teeth at the BBC that the two interviews he's scheduled in London are with Tom Brokaw of NBC (even though Obama will be back in Chicago by the time "Meet the Press" airs) and Bill Hemmer of Fox.

If the US electorate was the target of his Berlin speech, however, he was wide of the mark.

Before landing in the German capital, Obama seemed to have an inkling that there might be a downside to the European leg of his grand tour, describing the speech as a "high wire" act and a "crapshoot"

He may be the narrow front runner for the White House but there's still an election and the sense of irrational exuberance enveloping his campaign is dangerous.

Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee. Americans admire self-confidence up to a point, but fueling the notion that he's a presumptuous nominee is a good way to lose in November.


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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