Sunday, July 27, 2008
Barack Obama's foreign tour loses him ground back home
Barack Obama denied yesterday that he was ignoring the concerns of ordinary Americans while he tours the world, amid signs that the adulation he is receiving abroad has alienated some US voters. After the Democratic presidential candidate holds meetings with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron in London today, the last leg of his nine-day international tour, he returns home to a general election campaign with new polls showing him in a tightening race against John McCain, the Republican candidate.
Mr McCain and his surrogates have spent the week seeking to build the impression that Mr Obama’s trip – and particularly his speech to 200,000 in Berlin on Thursday – shows an arrogance and presumptuousness that is disconnected from voters back home, who are most concerned with the faltering US economy. “I’d love to give a speech in Germany. But I’d much prefer to do it as president of the United States, rather than as a candidate for the office of presidency,” Mr McCain said in the battleground state of Ohio. An aide to the Arizona senator called Mr Obama’s speech “a premature victory lap in the heart of Berlin”.
Mr McCain’s campaign has been beset by missteps and bad luck in the past month, and has been dwarfed in terms of media coverage by Mr Obama’s almost flawless audition on the world stage. Yet new surveys show Mr McCain pulling almost even with Mr Obama – a Gallup poll yesterday had Mr Obama leading 45 to 43 per cent – and the Democrat losing ground in several key battleground states. He has lost a small lead in Colorado, and his ten-point advantage over Mr McCain has dropped to just two in Minnesota.
Although Mr Obama is still favoured to win, other surveys show that many more voters identify with Mr McCain’s “values and background”, and feel they still don’t know Mr Obama. While Mr Obama met Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday, Mr McCain was holding a campaign rally in Pennsylvania. “For the past two days on talk radio here, pretty much every caller wanted to know why Barack Obama was in Europe and the Middle East rather than talking to people back home about the issues here,” said Andrew Seder, a reporter for the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who covered the McCain event. Mr Obama defended the trip, saying that persuading foreign leaders to send more troops to Afghanistan could save the US billions of dollars.
At a Paris press conference with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, Mr Obama said: “Let me remind everyone. I’m not the president. I’m a US senator.” Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist, said that he believed the trip had been a success, because voters “saw someone acting presidential, and that is one of the biggest thresholds he has to cross.”
End of the Affair?
Barack Obama and the press break up?
Around midnight on July 16, New York Times chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney received a terse e-mail from Barack Obama's press office. The campaign was irked by the Times' latest poll and Nagourney and Megan Thee's accompanying front-page piece titled "Poll Finds Obama Isn't Closing Divide on Race," which was running in the morning's paper. Nagourney answered the query, the substance of which he says was minor, and went to bed, thinking the matter resolved.
But, the next morning, Nagourney awoke to an e-mail from Talking Points Memo writer Greg Sargent asking him to comment on an eight-point rebuttal trashing his piece that the Obama campaign had released to reporters and bloggers like The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder and Politico's Ben Smith. Nagourney had not heard the complaints from the Obama camp and had no idea they were so steamed. "I'm looking at this thing, and I'm like, 'What the hell is this?' " Nagourney recently recalled. "I really flipped out."
Later that afternoon, Nagourney got permission from Times editors to e-mail Sargent a response to the Obama memo. But the episode still grates. "I've never had an experience like this, with this campaign or others," Nagourney tells me. "I thought they crossed the line. If you have a problem with a story I write, call me first. I'm a big boy. I can handle it. But they never called. They attacked me like I'm a political opponent."
So much for "Obama Love." That's the title of John McCain's new web ad, which strings together clips of cable news pundits gushing over Obama like besotted teens. This romance has been a prominent story line of Obama's entire campaign, and clearly elements of it are true: "I felt this thrill going up my leg," Chris Matthews crows in one clip flagged in the ad. But scratch the surface, and you'll find a lot of mixed feelings behind the Obama "love." Reporters are grumbling more and more that the campaign is acting like the Prom Queen. They gripe that it is "arrogant" and "control[ling]," and the campaign's own belief that Obama is poised to make history isn't endearing, either. The press certainly helped Obama get so far so fast; the question is, how far can he get if his campaign alienates them?
Last year, when Hillary Clinton campaigned as a front-runner, Obama provided access to the press corps and won over the media. One night, during a campaign stop in Iowa, he met reporters for off-the-record drinks. He cooperated for magazine profiles and appeared on the cover of GQ. And Clinton's relationship with the press wasn't half as easy. "The difference is the Clinton people were hostile for no reason," a reporter who has covered both Democrats tells me.
But, as Obama ascended from underdog to front-runner to presumptive nominee, the flame seems to have dwindled. Reporters who cover Obama these days grouse that Obama's flacks shroud the campaign in secrecy and provide little to no access. "They're more disciplined than the Bush people," a reporter on the Obama trail gripes. "There was this idea of being transparent, but they're not. They're total tightwads with information."
In June, there was something of a revolt after Obama ditched the press corps on his campaign plane for a secret meeting with Clinton at Senator Dianne Feinstein's house in Washington, leaving the reporters trapped on the flight to Chicago. The D.C. bureau chiefs of half a dozen news organizations, including the late Tim Russert, sent an angry letter to Obama aides Robert Gibbs and David Plouffe and threatened not to reimburse the campaign for the cost of the flight. "The decision to mislead reporters is a troubling one," they wrote. "We hope this does not presage a relationship with the Obama campaign that is not based on a mutual respect for the truth." After the incident, the press corps decided that one pool reporter would keep Obama in sight at all times. "It's a body watch," one reporter jokes.
Meanwhile, there have been widespread complaints over the shortage of spots to accompany Obama on his tour of the Middle East and Europe. A few days before the tour departed, Time magazine was told it couldn't send a photographer along, and, on July 22, NBC foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell complained on-air that the only images the press had received of Obama meeting with the troops was released by the U.S. military. (To be fair, congressional delegations to Iraq are kept secret for security purposes). And there's been widespread grumbling that the campaign revoked New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza's spot on the trip as retribution for the magazine's recent satirical cover. These may or may not be legitimate complaints--the evidence is mixed--but the press is hardly inclined to give the campaign the benefit of the doubt.
Obama's press liaison, Robert Gibbs, has built a particularly large reservoir of ill will. David Mendell, who covered Obama's Senate campaign for the Chicago Tribune and authored the 2007 Obama book From Promise to Power, wrote about Gibbs as "the anti-Obama" and described him as "Obama's hired gun, skillfully trained to shoot at reporters whose coverage was deemed unfair. Mendell tells me, "if [Gibbs] feels you're necessary to achieve a campaign goal, he will give you access and allow you in. But, if he feels you're not going to be of help, he can just ignore you." Mendell has his own specific gripe: Apparently, the Obama team was less than pleased with his biography, on which they cooperated, and Gibbs has since refused to help with the second edition.
One reporter sniffs that Gibbs, a native Alabaman and veteran of John Kerry's 2004 campaign, is the "communications director who doesn't communicate." "If you're getting an interview, and they say ten minutes, it's ten minutes," adds Time's Karen Tumulty, who scored an interview with Obama in June. "Robert Gibbs will cut it off."
Change Germans Can't Believe In
WITH gestures that ranged from a wink to a sneer, most anyone you met here this week volunteered the view that Barack Obama's visit to Europe caused unprecedented frenzy. But it's been hard for me to find a European, aside from two Harvard-educated friends in Paris, who confessed to excitement - not just about the visit, but the prospect of an Obama presidency.
It is true that Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly, featured Mr. Obama on its cover, topped by the words "Germany Meets the Superstar" - but the cover was satire, and nasty satire at that. The editors managed to find the ugliest photograph of Mr. Obama ever taken. It caught the senator at a moment that might be exhaustion but looks like conceited smirking. When Der Spiegel featured Mr. Obama on its cover in March, the cover line was "The Messiah Factor." Must one add that this, too, was not meant to be taken at face value?
Europeans will be as relieved as 72 percent of Americans to see the end of the Bush administration, but their attitudes toward the Democratic candidate are far from being the same as the ones he arouses at home. Mr. Obama makes Europeans uncomfortable.
In Germany, politicians in front of large, shouting crowds evoke images that nobody wants to see repeated. But genuine worries about demagoguery are not all that's at issue. The mocking undertone that accompanies most descriptions of Mr. Obama in the European news media signifies a trans-Atlantic divide. George W. Bush made matters far worse than they ever were, but the neoconservatives who advised him were right about one thing: Europe is gripped by a world-weariness that resists American dreams.
Not every European shows scorn for Mr. Obama. Karsten Voigt, the astute coordinator of the German Foreign Ministry's America policies, thinks the United States is attempting a "complete renewal of its own political culture." But then, Mr. Voigt told me last week, he considers himself a Kantian. Very few Germans do. Robert Kagan, the conservative foreign-policy expert, once claimed that Americans are hard-headed Hobbesian realists, while Europeans are Kantian idealists, but he got it backwards. European institutions may be closer to those imagined by Enlightenment thinkers, but the Enlightenment's spirit crossed the Atlantic long ago. The whole-hearted enthusiasm of audiences back home is an American thing. Europeans wouldn't understand.
Berlin, in particular, is in the middle of a very post-heroic moment. Its former bravado about its history now approaches indifference. Take the awkward turquoise building where visitors from the West used to part from loved ones at the Friedrichstrasse border. Dubbed the "Palace of Tears" by East Berliners, it later symbolized the local talent for black humor and raw energy when it was turned into a disco after reunification. Surrounded by cranes at work on yet another office building, the Palace of Tears no longer has any function, nor anyone to complain about it.
So when Mr. Obama reminded Berliners of their greater moments - the airlift, the destruction of the wall - he risked more scoffing. There was plenty of speculation about which German sentence he would memorize to one-up John F. Kennedy's famous speech.
In fact, what Mr. Obama did was far more interesting. He studied a speech given by Ernst Reuter, West Berlin's beleaguered mayor during the 1948 airlift. When Reuter said, "People of the world, look at Berlin!" he was calling for help. When Mr. Obama echoed him, he was using the city as a model - for all the other possibilities that Berliners, and the rest of us, are slow to acknowledge.
This was no feel-good speech about working together. Mr. Obama's riff on the Berlin airlift was a reminder that you need not drop a bomb to be a hero, and that American influence lasts when we don't. Nor was he merely flattering his hosts about their achievements or calling to mind happier days of trans-Atlantic partnerships. He was using the past to remind us all that we need not resign ourselves to the way things are now. What better place to remember than in the heart of Berlin?
"No one could live long in Berlin without being completely disabused of illusions," said Ronald Reagan in his speech calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I remember that day in 1987: the eyeballs rolled upward amid jaded sighs. Mr. Reagan's hosts heard his remarks with not quite concealed contempt, for most saw his speech as a tiresome bit of American naivete. They had made their peace with a structure they thought would last forever - like the barrier between rich and poor nations whose existence, Mr. Obama concluded Thursday, is the greatest challenge of this century.
In other speeches, Mr. Obama has emphasized "the extraordinary nature of America," where loyalty is less about particular places or tribes than particular ideas: above all the idea that we are not constrained by accidents of birth. We can make of our lives what we will.
Nothing quite like this is open to Europeans. The German philosopher Juergen Habermas proposed that Germans cultivate what he calls constitutional patriotism, but neither the estimable Mr. Habermas nor his countrymen have found the language to inspire it. Americans are lucky that our national thinkers could write words that continue to ring.
Mr. Obama's speech gave Europeans a chance to hear the difference between optimism and idealism. Optimists refuse to acknowledge reality. Idealists remind us that it isn't fixed.
Barack Obama - the earth didn't move for me
Comment from Britain
Barack in Berlin was hyped and touted to such a level that I raced downstairs to watch the live broadcast of him wowing the Germans on Thursday. Glass in hand, phones off the hook, expectant. Oooh, lovely sunny day for it, eh? Plenty of long-shots, distant views of the Brandenburg Gate, American flags, high crowd volume - expert foreplay, all in all.
Live speeches, like live rock concerts, do transport people. Once there were shamans and high priests and magicians to whip us up into altered states, now it's rock gods. And the occasional politician.
When he came floating out along the sea-blue walkway (wearing a sea-blue tie: nice touch, Obama-handlers!), I was ready for my Obamagasm
Bill Clinton always sucked me in, when he was on his hind legs and orating. Such a sexy beast of a politician, he was. Such a powerful speaker: sleepy eyes, steely hair, the hoarse, urgent, folksy voice like whipped butter dripping through cornbread. Until he bombed the aspirin factory, I'd have followed him anywhere.
Blair almost sucked me in. Just twice, back in the last century. For half an hour, during the speech that made him (Labour Party conference, 1994, the one where he ditched Clause 4), I got quite carried away. His brilliance burned the platform at Blackpool and I was among a frenzy of red-jacketed women worshippers. As he railed at Tory sleaze, I felt all the ancient atavistic political instincts twitching, just as they did when I was sweet and 20. All the ancient grievances and envies of youth against age, have-nots against haves, powerless against powerful, poor against rich. Luckily, I saw Alastair Campbell smirking afterwards and knew I'd been gulled.
And then for another 10 seconds, when a new dawn had broken, had it not? After the sleepless night and the Portillo moment and the excitable Peter Snow looking awestruck under the history-making red landslide? Even I thought, blimey, maybe he's the real deal. I gave him a pass, right up until he hammed up Diana's funeral. That deliberate crack in his actor's voice, those gulps and stammers, reminded me not to forget again that curmudgeon is my middle name.
I'd never watched Obama deliver a proper speech, only bits of debates with Hillary and endless snips from his stumping. US telly is viciously sound-bitey and repetitive and anyway, it's hell staying up until 4am only to get, "Yes we can!" and "Change we can believe in!" over and over.
But I wanted to see if he's any good, because I have little doubt that he's going to be the next US president. He is good, oratorically. I mean the process is good, and the presentation is terrific. Once you start listening to a man who clearly believes he can talk to crowds and keep his virtue, who speaks in lyrical cadences, who braces his words with pace and rhythm and proper care for the use of English, you do find yourself willing to be seduced.
Tall, dark and handsome, occasionally self-deprecating, at times, nearly witty - what's not to love? But the earth didn't move.
It's so easy-cheesy to flatter a crowd of (mostly young) Berliners on a sunny day in a handsome park in what we must accept is the de facto capital of the glorious EU. You can flatter their fathers' history, which is not that easy to do in Germany. (Margaret Thatcher had a hard time loving the reunification of a Greater Deutschland.) You can whip them up with constant references to "our generation" (that's you, kids) and give them lots of hope, via half-promises about working for climate change (wild applause) and peace in our time, "When we give meaning to the words, never again in Darfur!" (Yells and chants of Obama! Obama!).
People who want to win like channelling winners, hence all Obama's deliberate flicks towards the supremely charismatic JFK and America's all-time favourite prez, Ronald Reagan, both of whom rocked Berlin. Obama didn't lard the JFK resonances over much, probably for fear of being told: "Senator, you're no John F Kennedy," by some oldster, for whom John F Kennedy was "a friend of mine". But he jived through ol' Ron's famous soundbite ("Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall!") over and over.
History has led us to a new crossroads, he said. "Walls came tumbling down all over the world!" He went in for a lot of wall-tearing-down. Some of them were concrete walls, the type with cement in, and some were metaphorical walls of division. I couldn't keep up. I assumed it was a metaphorical wall "between Christian and Muslims and Jews" until he finished: "these are the walls we must tear down!" (Screams, chanting, applause.) I hope he's told Israel.
Back to concrete for: "Not only have walls come down in Berlin (cheers), but they have come down in Belfast (screams, applause) where Protestant and Catholic found a way to live together!" That's when I lost patience. Hmm, thinks I. Is it me, or didn't walls go up in Belfast after Blair's Good Friday agreement? I went to check on sluggerotoole.com, the brilliant Northern Ireland political website, and, lo: there was Slugger's Obama post. Headed: "Fine words about Belfast don't reflect reality" it was linked to a picture of a "peace line" (NI-speak for a massive great iron and concrete wall). Slugger O'Toole has gracious manners, and concluded his post ruefully: "Nice sentiments, Barack. But they don't reflect reality." He said at one point that he wanted a world that "favoured the many and not the few".
Oh, yeah: so did New Labour, and look where that got us. But was it a graceful little hat-tip to Blair? I wondered. Or wait! No. Maybe a little bon-bon for Gordon Brown when they meet tonight. I thought of Gordon watching Barack in Berlin, poor beast, chamfering under his loss in Glasgow East.
As he milked the applause (and he did milk it, quite shamelessly) I got seriously prickly armpits. My own curmudgeonly inner voice (That's enough! Just get off the bloody stage!) was amplified by memories of my late ma's endless Supergranny utterances, "Someone's getting overexcited" and "That baby wants putting down. Sharpish".
There'll be tears before bedtime, I reckon. It's a very unsexy thought, but that's what happens when you're ready for action and somebody flops
Obama's $845 billion U.N. plan forwarded to U.S. Senate floor
'Global Poverty Act' to cost each citizen $2,500 or more
The U.S. Senate soon could debate whether you, your spouse and each of your children - as well as your in-laws, parents, grandparents, neighbors and everyone else in America - each will spend $2,500 or more to reduce poverty around the world. The plan sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is estimated to cost the U.S. some $845 billion over the coming few years in an effort to raise the standard of living around the globe. S.2433 already has been approved in one form by the U.S. House of Representatives and now has been placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar for pending debate.
WND previously reported the proposal demands the president develop "and implement" a policy to "cut extreme global poverty in half by 2015 through aid, trade, debt relief" and other programs.
Cliff Kincaid at Accuracy in Media has published a critique asserting that while the Global Poverty Act sounds nice, the adoption could "result in the imposition of a global tax on the United States" and would make levels of U.S. foreign aid spending "subservient to the dictates of the United Nations." He said the legislation, if approved, dedicates 0.7 percent of the U.S. gross national product to foreign aid, which over 13 years, he said, would amount to $845 billion "over and above what the U.S. already spends."
The plan passed the House in 2007 "because most members didn't realize what was in it," Kincaid reported. "Congressional sponsors have been careful not to calculate the amount of foreign aid spending that it would require."
A recent statement from Obama's office noted the support offered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "With billions of people living on just dollars a day around the world, global poverty remains one of the greatest challenges and tragedies the international community faces," Obama said. "It must be a priority of American foreign policy to commit to eliminating extreme poverty and ensuring every child has food, shelter, and clean drinking water. As we strive to rebuild America's standing in the world, this important bill will demonstrate our promise and commitment to those in the developing world. "Our commitment to the global economy must extend beyond trade agreements that are more about increasing profits than about helping workers and small farmers everywhere," he continued.
Obama camp plasters posters at Western Wall
Advertises Democrat candidate's website, official slogan at Judaism's holiest site
Sen. Barack Obama's campaign plastered the entrance to the Western Wall - the holiest site in Judaism - with official campaign posters, WND has learned. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirmed to WND posters that adorned police barricades erected at the Western Wall plaza for Obama's visit were distributed by the presidential candidate's campaign. "These posters were his campaign and not the doing of the police," said Rosenfeld, whose police department coordinated security and provided protection for Obama's visit today to the holy site. Asked if it was traditional practice for politicians visiting the Western Wall to bring along posters or campaign materials, Rosenfeld replied, "No."
Obama campaign posters can be seen in media footage of the Illinois senator's early morning surprise visit to the Western Wall. His visit reportedly was not on the official campaign schedule. The posters display Obama's name in Hebrew. One poster erected on the main police barricade used by Obama to enter the holy site boasts the official red, white and blue campaign "O" symbol and advertises the candidate's campaign's website. A second poster also displays Obama's name in Hebrew and contains an image of Israeli and American flags.
Reuters posted images of the Obama campaign posters showing a handful of people waiting behind the police barricades. Reuters images had the following caption: "Supporters of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) stand behind banners printed with his name in Hebrew as they wait for his arrival at the Western wall." The caption implied supporters brought along the pro-Obama material.
But an eyewitness speaking to WND tells a different story. "The kids waiting for Obama may not even be Obama supporters. No one knew Obama was coming in advance. We saw the police barricades erected. We saw Obama's face on the posters, and some police said Obama was on his way. So a few people gathered by the barricades and waited for Obama," said the witness.
Obama's media relations department in the U.S. did not reply to a WND phone call request for comment. Obama arrived at about 5 a.m. Jerusalem time. He wore a Jewish skullcap and placed a prayer in the wall he said he had written. He bowed his head while a rabbi read a psalm calling for peace in the holy city.
According to media accounts, one worshipper repeatedly heckled Obama, chanting: "Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale" and "Jerusalem is our land."
After his brief visit to the holy site, Obama headed for Berlin, where he met with German leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He also delivered a major policy speech in front of Tiergarten Park's Victory Column, a 19th century structure in Berlin capped by a gilded angel.
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