As Barack Obama tours the Middle East and Europe this week, he will be watched closely by voters at home, foreign leaders and the citizens whose countries he visits, all trying to discern what kind of president he would be. But some of the closest scrutiny will come from the reporters on Obama's plane and from his Republican presidential rival, John McCain.
Most political observers say Obama must tread a fine line on this trip, a foreign swing by a presidential candidate unprecedented in its scope, during which the Illinois senator plans to talk with leaders in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Great Britain about how to increase cooperation between America and its allies in areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, combating terrorism, energy security and climate change.
The potential gains are clear, and so are the risks. Polls show Obama needs to close an important gap with voters who favor McCain on foreign policy issues. Last week's Washington Post/ABC poll of registered voters showed a 2-to-1 advantage for the Arizona senator on knowledge of world affairs; voters also preferred McCain to Obama on the issue of fighting terrorism.
This is Obama's first visit to Afghanistan, a point McCain highlighted repeatedly in the days leading up to the trip. McCain, for his part, traveled to Europe and the Middle East -- including Iraq -- in March, while the Democratic primary season was still in full swing. More recently, he has headed to Canada, Colombia and Mexico.
In a bid to help close the foreign policy gap, Obama spent last week talking about national security issues, including his proposals for reducing troops in Iraq and increasing forces in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, he made unannounced stops in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Kuwait, Obama met with military leaders, was greeted enthusiastically by U.S. troops, posed for photos and even shot some hoops. He saluted the soldiers at Camp Arifjan, telling them that "whatever political debates have taken place back home, whatever political party people belong to, America is united in being so proud of the extraordinary, brilliant, dedicated, professional service" the armed forces have provided. He was also careful to add that whether he wins the presidency or not, he is happy to have the opportunity to serve as a senator.
On Saturday, Obama landed in Afghanistan and met with top military leaders and local officials. On Sunday, he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and then headed back to Kuwait, where he met with Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the emir. Then today it was on to Iraq, where Obama's campaign is keeping his agenda top secret, though the candidate has said he hoped to meet with military commanders and reportedly met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this morning.
This week in the Middle East, Obama will talk with King Abdullah of Jordan; Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu; and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Here, he must convince skittish American Jewish voters that he is committed to Israel, while showing the Palestinians that he will work closely with both sides toward bringing peace to the region. He'll also likely discuss concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
In Europe, the senator is set to meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and opposition leader David Cameron; German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier; and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The senator was traveling on a congressional delegation with a Democratic colleague, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, and Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, both veterans who oppose the Iraq war and whose names have been mentioned as potential running mates.
A stellar review of the tour could give Obama the boost he needs to widen his national lead over his Republican rival. Still, he could prompt a backlash if, while attempting to signal the new era an Obama presidency could bring in U.S. relations with the rest of the world, he leaves the impression that he is campaigning or acting as a spokesman for America. He is well aware voters here at home might see that as presumptuous.
Obama's camp has said the tour was "not at all a campaign trip" and that it would not be political. Senior Foreign Policy Adviser Susan Rice told reporters on a conference call previewing the five-country swing that it was important to note that it was not Obama's intent "to make policy or negotiate" while abroad, because, as the senator himself has said, "there is one president of the United States at any given time."
But it is also important to note that the trip is taking place in the middle of the general election campaign, the senator is being accompanied by his usual traveling campaign press corps and he will be jetting around in his renovated campaign plane. He has invited the three network anchors for sit-down interviews in order to maximize what is sure to be his already high exposure over the coming days.
Those journalists will be watching for any gaffes that might indicate the senator -- who has a foreign policy support team of some 300 experts and advisers -- is uninformed about the concerns of the people in the countries he is visiting or with the language he should use to address those concerns. They will also be looking out for any rhetorical or staging nuances that could be seen as attempts to portray Obama as the inevitable president-elect.
McCain was out with his first negative ad of the general election last week, slamming Obama for not having held a single hearing on Afghanistan as chair of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the issue (a claim that Delaware Sen. Joe Biden (D), a potential vice presidential pick, dismissed because such hearings were held at the full committee level), for voting against funding troops and for not having visited Iraq "in years."
Obama robbed his rival of that last argument with his latest trip to Iraq. The question is whether he will make a mistake this week that will give McCain a new one.