Obama’s Trip Raises the Bar

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PARIS – In his six-day, four-nation mission to the Mideast and Europe, President Barack Obama has set new expectations for his presidency that go beyond spreading hope and will require real results.

Obama remains so hot internationally that when Allied leaders gathered at Omaha Beach for the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the French newspaper Liberation christened it “Obama Beach.”

And in Germany, a grainy shot of Obama grabbing a candy bar or energy bar in the back of his limo was the cover image for one tabloid: “Obama hungrig auf Dresden.”

Obama is moving into a new season of his presidency where it’s clear that his celebrity is going to be durable, and now he wants to start leveraging it to add clear accomplishments on a long list of issues that have flummoxed his predecessors.

The two that he talked most about during his trip were, first, shepherding real progress toward a Middle East peace, and, second, defusing tensions between the Muslim world and the West while ensuring a secure America in an age of terrorism.

On top of those, Obama wants to make progress toward reducing the world's nuclear weapons arsenal, and to keep a lid on North Korea and Iran while winding down the war in Iraq and ramping up the one in Afghanistan. That’s all on top of the biggest domestic agenda of any president in more than 30 years.

A senior administration official said the White House is embracing this new pressure to deliver.

“This is not a president who has ever shied away from setting high expectations, and then trying to meet them,” the official said. “This is a guy who has said that we’re going to get health care and energy and regulatory reform this year. “

Obama raised the bar for himself at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when he boasted of “more sustained activity” toward restarting Middle East talks “in the first five months than you would have seen in most previous administrations.

“The reason we are doing that is because not only had talks ground to a halt, but there was a sense that all sides were getting so dug in and so cynical that you might reach a point where you could never get the parties back at the table,” Obama said. “And I think given what we've done so far, we've at least created the space, the atmosphere, in which talks can restart.”

The official said Obama plans to remain personally involved in the process. “He has an ability to bring pressure on the parties over there to sit down and talk that other American presidents have not because he has an ability to communicate with the people of those countries that American presidents have not had traditionally,” the official said.

The administration has “made it clear to both sides that it’s going to be an even-handed process, but that we believe progress has to be made.”

“He’s committed to doing what he needs to do to make it possible for the progress to happen,” the official said. “Obviously he’s got top diplomatic people working on this. But he’s also shown that he’s willing, at appropriate times, to spend the time both privately, and also speak publicly, to move the process along and to put pressure on governments if he feels they’re being recalcitrant. … Let’s face it: Most Arabs are not used to hearing an American president criticize Israel. “

In a wrap-up briefing on the president’s trip, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said embassies throughout the Arab and Muslim world are reporting that the Cairo speech – which touched on tough issues like women’s rights – was already a success.

“Through the use of traditional as well as new media, we were able to reach the target audience we had wanted to reach, namely young Muslims in communities throughout the world, to get them to take another look at the United States, to understand that much of what they've been hearing about us for so long from the extremists is simply lies,” McDonough said. “And I think we're beginning to break through in a way that will allow us to get off of diversions and get on to principal issues that face us – the national security threats that face us.”

If the Israelis and Palestinians make notable progress toward peace, Obama’s speech – which included tough love for both sides – will be viewed as a turning point.

The White House believes the trip helped Obama deliver on “the implicit commitment that people felt his candidacy promised, which was a new approach and moving past the era where America’s standing abroad had declined in terms of how people saw our country,” according to the senior administration aide.

“That was always one of the unwritten, and almost impossible to measure, benefits people saw from an Obama candidacy,” the official said. “In focus groups, when they talked about him becoming president, they talked about the fact that because of his unusual background and because he was clearly so different from Bush, that it would give us the opportunity around the world to repair our relationships.”

Obama’s staff believes that the high-profile week on the international stage also helped cement his image at home.

“People will see the mixture of a forward-looking president who is trying to address the centuries-old conflict in the Middle East and who hopes to bring a fresh approach, but also – in both the trip to Buchenwald and the trip to Normandy – clearly is paying homage to the past,” the aide said. “And people like that combination.”

Obama’s speech at Cairo University, “A New Beginning,” was criticized by some for being short on specifics. But the aide said the intangibles associated with the speech “are as important as any policy proposal could have been.”

“The visual of the students in that room applauding him and cheering for him says more powerfully than anything we could assert: This is a different time with different opportunities, and we can move forward,” the aide said. “It makes our ability to get things done diplomatically much more powerful.”

But the American people are impatient, and they’ll eventually want concrete accomplishments.

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