When Barack Obama crossed the Atlantic in 2008 in the heat of a presidential campaign, his arrival was compared to Jackie Kennedy’s famous 1961 trip to Paris. Though just a senator, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people came out to see him, and veteran, usually jaded, world leaders fought to have their pictures taken with him. His horrified Republican opponent tried to mock him as an inexperienced “celebrity.” But the press could not get enough of Obama, as TV anchors and Sunday news shows fought for just a few minutes of his time.
It was something never before seen in American presidential politics.
Now, four years later, Mitt Romney hopes his own foreign trip will help boost him in his bid to oust Obama from the presidency. But his trip is Obama’s writ small – fewer stops, fewer countries, fewer questions from reporters, less exposure, no war zones, and little risk of being crowned a 2012 celebrity in ads that liken him to Paris Hilton. But in an election likely to be settled by only a percentage point or two, neither the White House nor the Obama campaign is complacent about the possibility that Romney might display enough foreign-policy savvy to win over voters skeptical of a governor as commander-in-chief.
They have already launched a stinging attack, belittling Romney's national- security credentials, demanding more foreign-policy specifics, and contrasting his 2012 itinerary with the more ambitious one followed by Obama in 2008. Obama went to eight countries, including two war zones — Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France, and England. Romney will visit three countries over the next week. He is scheduled to leave for London and the Olympics on Wednesday. On Thursday he will meet with Prime Minister David Cameron, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and opposition leader Ed Miliband along with other government officials. On Friday, he will attend the Olympic opening ceremonies and, with a nod to the many Irish-American voters back home, will sit down with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
On Saturday, he gets a chance to woo another large and influential domestic political constituency when he arrives in Israel. Romney has aggressively championed Israeli interests, arguing throughout the campaign that the president is insufficiently supportive of the embattled Middle East democracy and promising to push policies for the war-torn region that are “the opposite” of Obama’s. On Sunday, he will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had a volatile relationship with Obama, as well as President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. That day will conclude in Jerusalem with an address by the candidate.
On Monday, Romney leaves for yet another country with lots of native sons now voting in the United States — Poland. He will meet in Gdansk with Prime Minister Donald Tusk and legendary former President Lech Walesa. In Warsaw, on Tuesday, Romney will give another speech before returning home on Wednesday.
It’s an “odd itinerary,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, who noted the absence of Germany, the most influential power in the eurozone crisis, or any rising economic powers, or any war zone. To a foreign-policy expert, he said, it looks like Romney’s itinerary was set by “the naked electoral politics” of ethnic Catholic and Jewish voters back home. He said that it appears that Romney is trying “to emphasize his argument that Obama tries too hard to reach out to American adversaries and Romney is going to be first and foremost about supporting American allies.”
O’Hanlon said that Romney is wise not to try to duplicate the pizzazz of Obama’s 2008 trip. “Romney knows he can’t compete with that. Obviously, Obama in 2008 had a certain international resonance that is extremely rare in American presidential campaigns by anybody.” P.J. Crowley, a National Security Council staffer in the Clinton White House and a top aide in the Obama State Department, said that the circumstances four years later are totally different. “After eight years of George W. Bush, the world wanted a different kind of American leader and, today, Obama has closed that gap that existed in 2008,” he said.
Behind the scenes, Obama campaign staffers stress how open Obama was to questions of substance on his 2008 trip, stressing his willingness to appear on the two Sunday shows and talk to all the anchors. And, they note, he did not do something overseas that Romney will be doing in London — hosting campaign fundraisers. (Though the Romney campaign was quick to note on Monday that Obama’s campaign did use his big speech in Germany in fundraising appeals domestically.)
Both privately and publicly, Democrats are demanding that Romney use the trip to fill in gaps on foreign policy, particularly whether or not he plans to abide by the timetable set by the allies to pull troops out of Afghanistan in 2014. Romney has criticized Obama for setting a timetable but has not said if he would ignore it. “There is a big question here that I think Governor Romney needs to answer,” said Michele Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy. She was one of three top Obama campaign advisers who talked to reporters on a conference call on Monday.
Looking back on 2008, Robert Gibbs, a senior Obama adviser, told reporters on the call, “I think at the end of that trip the American people knew exactly where Barack Obama stood on all the major foreign-policy issues of the day. The question I think for Governor Romney is whether this trip will be similarly substantive and live up to the bar that was set in 2008. Or whether this is one long photo-op and fundraising tour.”
With Romney expected to make much of the often-uneasy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu in Israel, the Obama campaign has been stressing the increased aid and missile defense Obama has provided Israel. But Colin Kahl, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, acknowledged the tension to reporters on the call. “I think we’re all aware of the optics and some of the politics of personal relationships in the last couple of years in the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” he said, insisting the relationship remains strong. He also acknowledged Romney criticisms that Obama has not visited Israel as president. Somewhat defensively, he noted that President Ronald Reagan never visited the country and President George W. Bush did not do so until his second term. He added, “I think we can expect him to visit Israel in the second term should he be reelected.”
After the call, the Romney campaign did not provide specific answers on the questions raised by the Obama staffers, but dismissed the statements as “another desperate Obama campaign attack.” Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman, sent reporters a sharp attack on the president’s foreign policy. “In no region of the world is our country’s influence any stronger than it was four years ago,” he said. “President Obama has failed to restore our economy, is weakening our military with devastating defense cuts, and has diminished our moral authority.”