President Obama's deep dive into summitry this weekend may look like a break from the presidential campaign. He is, after all, going to be spending almost all his time from Friday night through Monday meeting with more than 60 world leaders, first at the G-8 summit at Camp David and then at the NATO gathering in Chicago. But in an election year, there really are no breaks. The summits offer both risks and rewards to a president running for another term.
The reward is being seen in charge, presiding over well-run summits, setting the agenda for the international community and the Western alliance. That picture could be more effective than anything the president could say in undercutting Republican claims that his foreign policy is "feckless" and that his is not a strong hand on the international tiller.
The main risk is that the summits could bring home the extent to which the fate of the U.S. domestic economy is at the mercy of policies adopted in Greece, France, Portugal, Berlin or other parts of the troubled Eurozone. Europe is the largest trading partner for the United States and a collapse of the Eurozone could have disastrous implications for the American economy. "Obama has a lot riding on the Europeans getting this right in terms of job impacts and the range of other impacts," said Bruce Jones of the Brookings Institution. When the president speaks about the outside influences on the U.S. economy -- from Japanese earthquakes to Athenian austerity -- economists hear acknowledgement of interconnectedness. But voters hear excuses.
For Obama, the summit also provides an opportunity to demonstrate growth in office. At his first G-8 summit, in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009, the president succeeded in pushing the allies to commit $22 billion to fight world hunger. But he was the new kid at the summit, the youngest and least experienced leader there. And critics back home had a field day with the photo the White House could have done without -- the president shaking hands with Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.