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Obama's trip looks like a victory lap

More than 200,000 people gather Thursday to hear Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at the Victory Column in Berlin. He called for closer ties between Europe and the United States.

Associated Press

More than 200,000 people gather Thursday to hear Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at the Victory Column in Berlin. He called for closer ties between Europe and the United States.

If Barack Obama wins the White House in November, we may well look back on this week as the turning point when he started to ease lingering doubts about his readiness to lead America.

American voters have seen a stream of images from Europe and the Middle East showing a confident Obama looking every bit like a head of state while mingling with international leaders.

"He couldn't have had a better week, at least according to the press coverage. If there's a negative, I don't see it," acknowledged David Johnson, a Republican consultant and member of John McCain's Florida steering committee. "He had a hole in his resume that he needed to fill, but only time will tell how well this plays out."

The sight of more than 200,000 people cheering him on Thursday in Berlin invited comparisons to speeches there by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

"This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real, and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it," Obama said in a 30-minute speech at the Victory Column, which commemorates Prussian victories.

"If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman, in London and Bali, in Washington and New York. If we could win a battle of ideas against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope."

The best analogy is Reagan — but not when he stood at the Brandenburg Gate and demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" No, it's Reagan the candidate, trying to unseat President Jimmy Carter.

Faced with turmoil abroad and at home, the country was desperate for change. But voters weren't yet comfortable turning to Reagan, who lagged in the polls throughout the summer of 1980 before showing he was equipped to be commander in chief and trouncing the incumbent.

Just as that election was a referendum on Reagan, this one is all about Obama.

And instead of any serious gaffes so far on his nine-day overseas trip, the gifts keep coming for Obama.

Some of the rookie's long-standing foreign policy positions now look savvier than McCain's: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki telling a German magazine he supports Obama's plan to withdraw troops within 16 months; the Bush administration suddenly reversing itself to hold talks with Iran and also suddenly embracing the idea for "a time horizon" for leaving Iraq.

"McCain and his campaign are furious with the press, when frankly they ought to be really furious with the president,'' quipped Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

McCain's luck? Not so great. His campaign hoped to suck up some of the media coverage Thursday by having him appear on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast. Instead, bad weather killed his plans to hail the importance of offshore drilling, and on top of that, a 400,000-gallon fuel oil spill shut down part of the Mississippi.

McCain ended up at a German restaurant in Ohio and suggested Obama was taking a premature, inappropriate victory lap.

"I'd love to give a speech in Germany — a political speech or a speech that maybe the German people would be interested in," McCain said, "but I'd much prefer to do it as president of the United States rather than as a candidate."

The McCain campaign also criticized Obama for scrapping plans to visit wounded soldiers in Germany. The Obama campaign said the candidate thought it would be inappropriate on a campaign-funded journey.

Unlike Kennedy's 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, Obama spoke only in English on Thursday. Contrasting himself to the Bush administration that once dismissed Germany as part of "old Europe," Obama touted cooperation and common purpose.

"I know my country has not perfected itself," he said. "We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions. But I also know how much I love America."

As the anti-Bush candidate in the race, Obama is enormously popular in Germany. He is all over the covers of magazines, and one recent poll found 70 percent of Germans would pick him if they were voting in a U.S. election.

For all the glowing coverage Obama earned this week, this race remains wide open. Any presidential front-runner who has to keep reminding voters he loves America has plenty of work to do.

Remember that much of the media cast Obama's big March speech on race as the best thing since the Sermon on the Mount? Obama followed that up with a series of primary losses to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in large part because of lack of support among working-class white voters.

Adoring fans in Germany don't vote in American elections after all, and Obama has a lot more persuading to do over the next 100 days. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this week found that even as Obama held a six-point lead over McCain nationally, 55 percent believe Obama would be the riskier choice for the presidency; just 35 percent say that of McCain.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

Obama's trip looks like a victory lap 07/24/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 27, 2008 9:00pm]
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