Returning from his weeklong trip to Europe and Iraq, President Obama touched ground in his own capital early this morning. And, like a giddy group of children greeting their traveling father, the nation asked, "What did you bring us?"
Much like his presents to Queen Elizabeth and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama came home with a bag of gifts that may leave some Americans, especially congressional Republicans, demanding more. From the economic crisis to Afghanistan, Obama left Europe with little to show in the near term. Back home, the stock market started to head south again, while one of his top legislative priorities, the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act, lost vital Democratic support in the Senate.
While he can't boast of tangible achievements, he set a tone with world leaders that resonates back home with his own constituents.
Indeed, despite fawning coverage of his town-hall meetings, jam-packed schedule and charm offensive, his wife's emotional remarks to British schoolgirls and -- who could forget? -- the first couple's meeting at Buckingham Palace, the president failed to win two of his trip's most pressing priorities: securing more domestic stimulus spending from Group of 20 leaders and a larger international coalition of troops for Afghanistan.
And yet it's hard to deny that Obama's trip was, on balance, a success.
On the economy, Obama and his G-20 partners outlined detailed plans to increase regulatory institutions (the priorities of France and Germany) but failed to broker key commitments to expand global stimulus (the goals of Britain and the U.S.). How you judge Obama's success here depends on what time frame you're focusing on: While the regulatory agreements could help struggling nations with future downturns, economists increasingly believe the more immediate crisis requires countries to spend more money now.
Asked to assess the G-20's economic accomplishments, Obama said, "I think we did OK." Well, at least he was honest.
On Afghanistan, Obama also did OK. NATO leaders pledged broad support for his narrowed war strategy but politely brushed aside his request for a big increase in troop commitments. With protesters howling outside the meeting in Strasbourg, France, NATO leaders would only commit 5,000 new ground troops, including 3,000 for temporary duty -- far fewer than the Obama administration had requested. This show of European wariness could prove particularly troubling for Obama this summer when he seeks congressional support to expand the U.S. presence by 10,000 troops.
And that, apparently, is why Iraq became part of Obama's itinerary. By making a surprise visit Tuesday to Baghdad, Obama revealed a strategic decision to refocus Americans' attention on a region that has slipped from their minds. In a mid-March CNN poll, just 6 percent named the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the nation's most pressing priority. That's less than one-tenth the share of people who said the economy was the most pressing.
And yet, despite the president's limited record of tangible achievements, Americans' early assessment of Obama trip was positive -- very positive. A CBS News/New York Times poll released Tuesday shows Obama with a 66 percent overall approval rating, his highest ever in that poll, and a 59 percent approval of his handling of foreign policy, a big jump since early February. A CNN survey shows that 61 percent think he's accomplished a "great deal" or "fair amount" during the trip.
Perhaps more notably -- due to Obama's travels, recent domestic efforts or other developments -- American confidence is climbing steadily: A full 39 percent of respondents said they think the country is headed in the right direction, according to the CBS/Times poll. While that's still an abysmal number, it's a huge jump from January, when 15 percent of Americans felt that way, and from last October, when just 7 percent did. A new Newsweek poll shows similar improvement over the last month when respondents were asked what they saw ahead for the economy.
And that's why Obama returns home as a successful world traveler. While he can't boast of tangible achievements, he set a tone with world leaders that resonates back home with his own constituents. My friends at NBC's "First Read" compared Obama's trip to the presidential candidate's maiden visit to Iowa in mid-February 2007. Obama didn't leave the Hawkeye State with high-profile endorsements or cash commitments, but his three-city fly-around set the stage for his campaign to win the Iowa caucuses.
"I want to win," Obama told a crowd that day at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids. And, well, we all know how that turned out for him.