Barack Obama conquered the Middle East and Europe last week, but on Saturday he returned to face a more challenging battleground: middle America.
Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, wrapped up his weeklong overseas tour with a statement that -- for all the television coverage his travels from Afghanistan to Britain received -- he was eager to get back to domestic issues.
“We’ve been out of the country for a week,” he told reporters outside the British prime minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street. “People are worried about gas prices. They’re worried about home foreclosures.”
Obama aides said they believed the unusual trip succeeded in bolstering the first-term Illinois senator’s credibility as a potential commander in chief despite his brief tenure in national politics.
“Any campaign, in part, is about whether people can picture a candidate in that role,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist.
U.S. political analysts, including many Republicans, largely agreed -- but added that it was too early to measure the effect of the trip.
“Obama had a historic week. He cleared all the bars and did amazingly well,” said Scott Reed, who managed the 1996 presidential campaign of Republican Bob Dole. “But it probably isn’t going to change many votes. . . . He still hasn’t closed the deal.”
“It would be hard to come up with a better week for Obama,” said Christopher F. Gelpi, an expert on public opinion at Duke University. “But it will be another week or so before we see if he got a bounce.”
Polls conducted while Obama was on the road produced conflicting results. As of Saturday, the Gallup daily tracking poll found that the Illinois senator had gained a few points and led Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, nationwide, 48% to 41%. A Fox News Poll released Thursday found that Obama had slipped a few points and had a statistically insignificant edge over McCain, 41% to 40%.
Neither poll suggested a change in the problem Obama’s trip sought to address: Though most voters prefer the Democrat’s positions on the economy and other domestic issues, most believe McCain is more qualified to be president, especially as a leader on national security.
Obama aides said they intend to turn their campaign’s focus back toward the domestic economy beginning Monday. On the plane trip back to the U.S., the candidate told reporters that he is planning a meeting that day that will include former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and investor Warren Buffett.
The candidate plans to spend today in his hometown of Chicago after his roughly 16,000-mile journey and later in the week visit Missouri, Iowa and Florida.
The economy is still “paramount,” Axelrod said Friday at Paris’ Elysee Palace, the French president’s residence.
McCain, too, is seeking to build an advantage on a domestic issue: energy. Polls show that most voters agree with McCain’s positions in favor of increased drilling for offshore oil and building nuclear power plants. On Saturday, McCain criticized Obama for opposing both.
As political theater, Obama’s trip was an epic -- a campaign version of “Around the World in Eighty Days” that lured the anchors of the three major television networks out of their studios. It displayed him in photogenic locations meeting troops at U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and speaking to a huge, cheering crowd in Berlin -- complete with American flags distributed by the candidate’s campaign aides.
Obama provoked not only the customary polite reception from most foreign leaders but an effusive embrace from France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said: “If he is chosen, then France will be delighted.”
More important, and perhaps more helpful to Obama’s presidential chances, were the virtual endorsements he received from leaders of Iraq and Israel for his most controversial foreign policy positions.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said he favored an early withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and called Obama’s proposed timetable of 16 months from January 2009 “suitable.”
After pleas from the U.S. Embassy, Maliki’s spokesman softened the statement, a little: He said the Iraqi government favored a withdrawal by the end of 2010.
The Bush administration and McCain have opposed setting a fixed timetable, although the White House has agreed to discuss a “time horizon” based on military conditions. And by the end of the week McCain endorsed that idea too.
In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other officials praised Obama’s understanding of their country’s concerns; they especially lauded his strongly worded assurance that he considers it unacceptable for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
“For every fear, query or question, Obama immediately produced a suitable Zionist answer,” wrote columnist Itamar Eichner in Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot.
Obama aides said they spent months on groundwork for the trip, including conversations with Israeli officials explaining his positions on Iran and other issues. “Senior advisors to Sen. Obama stay in regular contact with Israeli officials, especially through the Israeli Embassy in Washington,” said Susan Rice, an Obama aide.
The trip was not flawless. There were gaffes ranging from verbal slips (Obama declared that “Israel is a strong friend of Israel’s”) to the last-minute cancellation of a visit to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. And some critics scorned Obama’s speech in Berlin as more poetry than substance.
But even GOP political operatives viewed the journey as a technical success, if only because it enabled Obama to dominate campaign coverage, especially on television.
On the day of Obama’s Berlin speech, McCain’s campaign planned to fly its candidate to a Gulf of Mexico oil platform to provide a dramatic picture of the Republican denouncing his rival’s opposition to offshore drilling. But Hurricane Dolly forced McCain to cancel the trip; an aide said it would be rescheduled.
“If McCain had been able to do that event, it would have been a home run,” mourned Reed.
Mostly, McCain spent the week peppering his foe with criticism.
He complained that Obama opposed the “surge” in U.S. troops in Iraq that allowed the Maliki government to call for an early withdrawal. He charged: “Sen. Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”
On Saturday, in his new weekly radio address, McCain sarcastically said: “With all the breathless coverage from abroad, and with Sen. Obama now addressing his speeches to ‘the people of the world,’ I’m starting to feel a little left out. Maybe you are too.”
But he also scored Obama on specifics. “I wonder if he noticed while he was in France that they draw 80% of their electricity from nuclear energy,” McCain said.
Reed said: “The secret of any campaign is control over the terms of the debate, and both campaigns are still struggling to get control,” Reed said. “For Obama, it’s defining McCain as the third term of George W. Bush. For McCain, it’s defining Obama as unprepared to lead. It’s really that simple.”
He added: “There shouldn’t be any panic in McCain World. There’s no question that Obama won the week. But there are a lot more weeks ahead.”
McManus reported from Washington and Finnegan reported from the Obama campaign in London. Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux, Peter Nicholas, Maeve Reston and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.