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Obama's world tour an appeal for U.S. Jewish votes

Sunday, July 27, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT
Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program "Global Journalist." It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: With great fanfare, Sen. Barack Obama is on a whirlwind tour of South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The trip is designed to show he can handle issues of war and peace with authority befitting a United States president, and that he can deal with friends and foes in a manner representing the U.S.'s best interests. From the press coverage, one cannot escape the feeling that if the election were held today, and if the voters included citizens of Western Europe, Obama would be elected in a landslide. A recent Gallup Poll showed him to be an odds-on favorite among citizens of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. How is this trip helping Obama's presidential campaign?

Paul West, Washington bureau chief, Baltimore Sun, Washington, D.C.: Obama's main objective is to get voters who haven't made up their minds to envision him as a credible commander-in-chief. It is standard operations for a presumptive presidential nominee to go abroad to allow voters to become comfortable with the idea that this is the person who will become their president. The difference is Obama is the first African-American. By virtue of his personal background, he has a special global appeal that John McCain doesn't have.

Loory: How is Obama being received in Germany?

Cordula Meyer, senior Washington correspondent, Der Spiegel, Washington, D.C.: The German view of the U.S. has deteriorated during the eight years of Bush's presidency, with only 31 percent of Germans now having a favorable view. Germans aren't comfortable with that and they want to embrace America again. Obama would be the perfect person to allow them to do so. His personal background intrigues Germans, his political style is uplifting, and he is charismatic and good-looking. Obama is the perfect fusion of pop and politics. Interest in politics is low in Germany. The hope is Obama can get people involved again by mixing in this pop star appeal.

Loory: If Obama represents a fusion of pop and politics, does that combination work for him in the Middle East?

Peter Hirschberg, correspondent, The Irish Times, Jerusalem, Israel: Israel may be one of the only countries where Obama wouldn't win an election. Israelis are more skeptical of Obama than of McCain because Obama is perceived as being more sympathetic to the Palestinians, and because he wouldn't entertain the possibility of military intervention in Iran. Obama said he would be more engaged in sorting out the Israeli/Palestinian conflict than the Bush Administration. When Israeli officials hear that term, they equate it with more pressure on Israel to make concessions. Many Israeli citizens would be happy to see pressure on Israel because without American engagement, they feel there won't be progress in the peace talks. But officials would be more comfortable with McCain.

Loory: Obama visited Sderot, an Israeli town that was victimized by rockets from Gaza. Did that bode favorably for him?

Hirschberg: Not necessarily. The general sentiment was everything Obama did and said while he was in Israel was aimed less at Israelis and more at Jewish voters in the U.S. While Jewish voters are only about 1 percent of the general electorate, they do have a disproportionate sway for various reasons: they turn out in high numbers at the polls; many live in swing states; and they donate much money to political candidates. Many people felt he was talking more to that constituency.

Loory: How was Obama received in Ramallah?

Sam Bahour, freelance journalist, Ramallah, West Bank: Palestinians welcomed him with open hands. The U.S. standing in the Palestinian Authority has been damaged during this sensitive time, and the Palestinian leadership and public are looking to the U.S. for different ways forward. There isn't a huge conviction that Obama, if he becomes president, will have the political will or leverage to change track for the U.S. But Palestinians realize the damage the Bush Administration has caused must be stopped. Considering both candidates, Obama would be the closest one to making a change in direction.

Loory: Will this trip help Obama win the election, or will it hurt him?

West: This trip could help Obama. The visit clearly was aimed at influencing Jewish voters, who probably won't vote for him as heavily as they have for other Democratic presidential candidates. They still will favor him, but not by the same wide margins because of suspicions he would be friendlier to the Palestinians. However, it is a tall order for someone with so little experience in diplomacy and foreign policy to tackle something as complicated as the Middle East peace situation. Obama is probably sincere when he says he will take this on from day one, but actually changing things would be a difficult challenge for anyone.

Loory: How do Germans feel about Obama wanting Western European nations to assist in containing the conflict in Afghanistan?

Meyer: If Obama is elected, Europeans are in for some disappointment because they see him as the peace-loving president. But he has already made clear he wants the Europeans to show more responsibility and to send more troops. The U.S. has underestimated how reluctant the Germans are to send combat troops. There is no public support for it, so that will be a touchy issue.

Loory: Does Obama believe in his policies for Afghanistan and Iraq?

West: Obama is a blank slate when it comes to both military and foreign policy. He has gotten off relatively easily on his opposition to Bush's so-called "surge." Most people would agree it has helped settle things down in Iraq, but Obama says no one knows what would have happened if his plan had been tried instead. Obama may feel he has to project force to make a statement once he becomes president, but how he'll deal with Afghanistan in the long term is a different question.

Loory: Are Afghanistan and Iraq of concern for Israelis and Palestinians?

Hirschberg: Afghanistan is pretty much a non-issue. A lot of Israelis supported the invasion of Iraq and are worried about what will happen once the Americans leave. They fear it will create a vacuum that the Iranians will fill. That would increase Iran's influence in the region.

Bahour: Palestinians have been closely watching what Obama would say about Iraq during this visit. What they heard from him - a continuation of U.S. military intervention and a possible movement of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan - didn't sit well or show a new direction. Obama's bold leadership will require a different way of doing business. As long as it's based on military intervention, there won't be much of a difference from a foreign policy perspective.

Loory: Will this trip raise foreign policy issues above economic and social issues in the campaign?

West: It may raise them when people see pictures of the rally in Berlin, but this is an election in a country that is deeply unhappy about the direction of the economy. People are worried about their jobs, their home mortgages and the price of gas.

Loory: Although in the annals of American presidential politics many candidates have made trips overseas, there hasn't been a campaign tour like this before, with all the publicity and with the big three American anchors accompanying him on the trip.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim and Catherine Wolf.

 


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