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Obama's Balancing Act

By Dan Balz
BERLIN -- Barack Obama's foreign trip has been a balancing act. It is a presidential-style tour by someone who is not president. It is a campaign event that his advisers dare not acknowledge as such. It is a tour designed to leverage his popularity abroad to appeal to voters at home, but not at the cost of appearing captured by anti-American and anti-Bush sentiment.

All of those tensions came together on Thursday evening in Berlin. This was the big public event of Obama's foreign tour, his only major speech and the moment in the trip when everything would come together to scream out "change!" to both sides of the Atlantic. Yet there was almost a mismatch between image and oratory, setting and substance.

Obama plays -- or seeks to play -- the game of politics at a different level than many politicians. How many others could have drawn 200,000 people to the middle of Berlin on a soft summer evening? How many would have dared try? Those realities send a distinctive message about Obama's candidacy, but also invite distinctive scrutiny.

For sheer political theater, the scene of Obama framed against an endless sea of cheering people stretching from the Victory Column toward the Brandenburg Gate was all his presidential campaign could have envisioned. But was the speech all the candidate had hoped?

Columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian on Friday, "The speech was not one of Obama's masterpieces, but it certainly cleared the exceptionally high standard he has set himself." But he added this thought as well: "Last night's pictures from Berlin will have further discomfited John McCain, who has struggled for media oxygen during a week of near-constant coverage of his opponent's grand tour."

There was nothing easy about trying to deliver a sober address about Transatlantic relations in the middle of what was the equivalent of a rock concert, but that was the challenge Obama set for himself. It was a "yes we can" setting but not a "yes we can" speech.

Obama's objective was to give a broadly thematic speech that would tell Europeans and Americans that the new century demands more, not less, involvement and cooperation. So he talked about the importance of rebuilding a vital U.S.-European alliance that could apply lessons learned in the struggle against communism and apply them to 21st century threats, from terrorism to global warming.

His advisers knew that another danger was to play to a crowd that would be filled with Europeans who loathe the current president. There was much in the speech to satisfy those who despise Bush, though delicately stated. In an Obama presidency, the candidate suggested, America would not condone torture, would not seek to act unilaterally, would aggressively address climate change and would end the war in Iraq.

His language was not of a triumphal America but of an America that has sometimes fallen short of its goal of forming a more perfect union -- though still one in Obama's rendering that has been a persistent force for good in the world. But he also chided Europeans for assuming that "America is part of what has gone wrong in our world rather than a force to help make it right." And he prodded the Europeans -- the Germans directly -- to send more troops to Afghanistan.

For many reasons, Obama could not -- or did not -- let it all loose on Thursday, which is why the lasting memory of the night will not be a phrase or a sound bite but simply the photographs of the singular politician and the mass of humanity arrayed expectantly before him.

No one really remembers how big the crowd was when John F. Kennedy uttered the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner," or when Ronald Reagan told Gorbachev "tear down this wall." But was there a takeaway line from Obama's speech that will echo the rest of the campaign or beyond? If not, was it a missed opportunity by a politician who had a unique moment to seize?

Obama and his advisers never envisioned a speech built around a few takeaway lines. It would have been too risky, for one thing -- too "presumptuous" (the word that has stalked Obama from the beginning of this trip) for a mere candidate to aspire to history's recordings on foreign soil. It was that same instinct, say his aides, that made him reject speaking from the Brandenburg Gate when he first heard it was under consideration. They say he understood the difference between a candidate and a president.

The images beamed round the world were powerful enough in themselves to qualify the event as a success, but the best of political events marry words and images. That is especially the case for a politician who made the phrase "words matter" a weapon in the primaries.

The scene in Tiergarten Park spoke again to the extraordinary potential of Obama, and if he looked comfortable literally on a world's stage, all the better. The process of crossing the threshold of acceptability as a possible commander in chief will not come through one eureka moment but through an accumulation of events. The week's images will help become part of that mosaic.

But the spectacle in the park also was a reminder of the enormously high expectations Obama continues to set for a possible presidency. The more he puts himself in the kind of setting his campaign staged, the more he will raise them further. If he manages to win in November, he will have his work cut out for him.

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 25, 2008; 6:46 PM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take  
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