When Barack Obama traveled to the Middle East and Europe last week, with a huge entourage of reporters in tow, he had to keep reminding people that he was a citizen and a senator—but not yet the President of the United States. Could have fooled me. He was treated like the incumbent in almost every respect, save one: there was no expectation that he would accomplish anything concrete. To be sure, he navigated a series of complex issues with poise and confidence, established an easy rapport with foreign leaders and American troops, and handled the thrust and parry of a couple of press conferences and a series of interviews nearly flawlessly. He also became the screen onto which people in the countries he visited—from the Green Zone in Baghdad, to the streets of Berlin—could project their desire for a better relationship with a less ideological America.
On balance, Obama’s trip was a success. But in many ways, the bar was set too low. If he is elected president (a prospect more likely this week than last), Obama will be burdened with a much heavier set of expectations when he travels abroad. Adoring crowds and dramatic photo ops—useful components of successful statecraft, to be sure—aren’t enough. He’ll also have to deliver the goods: a specific timetable for the withdrawl of American troops in Iraq; concrete steps to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process; more money and more soldiers from our European allies to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s easy to talk in broad strokes about common values and common interests; it’s much harder to decide who is going to give up what to further those lofty goals.
As a candidate, Obama has remained intentionally gauzy; his appeal has been based more on the promise of a new kind of politics than on the particulars of his policies. As president, he’ll have to make tough choices that will bring his vision for the country into sharper focus. And that will no doubt disappoint some of the people for whom he embodies “change we can believe in.” It’s a burden all presidents face, to differing degrees, after they are elected, but one to which Obama seems particularly vulnerable. When the media treats the Illinois senator’s getting-to-know-you meetings with friendly foreign leaders as if they were of paradigm-shifting importance, it may help in the short term, but it does him a disservice in the longer term. His next trip abroad will be substantially more important, but in too many respects he’ll be hard-pressed to match the intense interest and superb execution of the past week.
Managing expectations is an important part of running a successful campaign, and Obama and his team have proven more than up to the task. But as summer becomes fall, they would be well advised to look beyond Election Day. Managing expectations about what he will—and will not—be able to accomplish as president, particularly in the first year, will be critical to his ability to govern. And in the end, isn’t that what this whole crazy process is all about?
Dee Dee Myers in Vanity Fair
[mais: Harvard Law Reviewed]