Assessing Obama's First Trip

By Dan Froomkin
1:09 PM ET, 03/31/2009

The Obamas leaving the White House this morning. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

President Obama embarked today on the first major foreign trip of his young presidency. Over the next eight days, Obama will be the central figure in a panorama of politics, pomp and pageantry spanning five countries.

The political media is setting this up as a huge test for Obama, with the implication being that if he doesn't come back with some major accomplishments to show for his troubles, he will have failed.

But even at a moment of great crisis, summits and state visits tend to be more about taking pictures than making policy. Whatever agreements will be reached have probably already been worked out by lower-level officials, and will be expressed in diplomatic statements that are vague enough to let everyone declare victory.

So the more lasting significance of this trip may be as a reminder of the historic nature of Obama's presidency.

Over here, we've gotten so caught up in the seemingly endless crises that Obama has been forced to address that we've lost sight of how extraordinary it is that a self-made black man is our president. Perhaps seeing things through non-American eyes will change that.

Perhaps this trip will remind us of our country's special role in the world, not just as its only superpower but as a land of unparalleled opportunity. Perhaps this trip will remind us of how dramatic a change we made in January. Perhaps this trip will be seen as a symbol of our restoration to our rightful place on the globe, after too long as a pariah nation led by a trigger-happy cowboy.

But perhaps not. Perhaps we will focus on moments of conflict and on declaring winners and losers.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz sets a typically modest bar: "Can President Obama lead the world?" he asks.

"[I]t is the question that will shadow him throughout his trip and is likely to become the basis for judging the outcome upon his return."

Balz writes that the Obama's enormous popularity abroad -- and the transformative effect his presidency has had on international perceptions of the United States -- is a given.

So: "The question is whether Obama has a strategy in mind to leverage that popularity to bend recalcitrant allies in directions he would like them to go, whether that means producing a coordinated response to the international economic crisis or winning concrete support for his new policies for Afghanistan and Pakistan."

In particular, Balz casts Obama's commitment to multilateralism not as a strength but as a potential source of weakness because "it leaves considerable power in the hands of U.S. allies to resist measures Obama may be advocating, unless he proves to be powerfully persuasive in both public and private venues."

Stephen Collinson writes for AFP: "Seldom can a US president have faced such a stern first test overseas as the one awaiting Barack Obama at Thursday's Group of 20 economic crisis summit in London.

"Obama has spent the exhausting first two months of his presidency battling to ensure the worst economic slump in generations does not overwhelm the huge expectations and ambitious plans of his young presidency.

"Now, he must take a central role in global efforts to mitigate the crisis while easing hints of rifts between Europe and the United States on the best way forward."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Despite his immense popularity around the world, Mr. Obama will confront resentment over American-style capitalism and resistance to his economic prescriptions when he lands in London on Tuesday for the Group of 20 summit meeting of industrial and emerging market nations plus the European Union."

Jonathan Martin writes for Politico: "He's no longer merely a candidate, wildly popular abroad in large part because of the contrast he offered to his predecessor. Now he's commander in chief of a nation that often finds itself at odds with even its allies."

Richard Wolf writes in USA Today: "After 10 weeks in office trying to save the U.S. economy, President Obama is ready to take on the world economy. Whether the world is ready for his remedy remains in doubt....

"It's one of the most anticipated presidential trips since John Kennedy went to Berlin in 1963."

The media prognosis is not any better for the rest of trip.

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "The president plans to push for a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, aggressive action to stop the proliferation of weapons and a more united European effort to combat the global recession.

"But if the U.S. president thought his popularity would cause foreign governments to fall quickly into line behind a new American leadership, experts warn, he could be in for a rude awakening."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company