ANKARA, Turkey – During his presidential campaign, Barack Hussein Obama rarely made an appearance.
He spoke little of his childhood in Indonesia, or his Muslim relatives. He battled rumors that he is Muslim. He struggled to appear not as somehow exotic but as the everyman.
But as he embarks on a new campaign to win over the Muslim world, Obama is calling attention to the non-traditional aspects of his upbringing like never before – hoping to turn his biggest political liability at home into a powerful asset abroad.
He’s not merely portraying himself as a break from George W. Bush’s policies, but as a leader whose unique background can help him better understand the world.
“The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” he said in a speech here Monday to Parliament.
That message was aired at the wider Muslim world, and to underline his familiarity with their culture, he recalled his own childhood abroad in Indonesia.
“Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country — I know, because I am one of them,” he noted to applause.
On Friday, at a town hall meeting in Strasbourg, France, he made an extemporaneous comment that would have been unthinkable on a campaign where female supporters wearing headscarves were once removed from a camera shot behind the candidate.
“I think that it is important for Europe to understand that even though I'm now president and George Bush is no longer president, al-Qaeda is still a threat, and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as President, suddenly everything is going to be OK,” he told the audience.
Translation: I recognize the powerful symbolism my name offers – but that doesn’t mean the world isn’t still a dangerous place and American allies can let down their guard.
But Obama’s use of his middle name – something his own staff glossed over during the campaign by referring to him on paper as “BO” instead of “BHO” – also reflected something larger: that it is as much a political asset now as it was a liability then.
Muslim citizens, wary of American intentions, may not just feel more warmly toward the United States because of the sort of outreach performed by Obama Monday, but because they can relate to him at least a little more than any of his predecessors.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeming to recognize the signal that using Obama’s middle name sends, thanked him for his visit by looking into cameras that would reach millions of Muslims and calling him “the distinguished president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.”
Obama aides downplay the president’s increased use of his personal ties to Islam, noting it’s just one element of a broader campaign to do what he can to bolster America’s standing abroad – and not just with Muslim nations.
“One of the goals when he ran for president was to improve our relationship with the world,” said an administration official. “Lots of things go into that.”
But it’s clear that one of his central goals is to repair the greatly diminished standing America has in Arab countries following 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003.
And as Obama and his aides have repeatedly said, there was a reason why he came to Turkey, the traditional bridge between East and West and a nation that is 99 percent Muslim, on their first overseas trip.
In comments that were carried lived on Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera Monday, Obama said; “Our focus will be on what we can do, in partnership with people across the Muslim world, to advance our common hopes and our common dreams. And when people look back on this time, let it be said of America that we extended the hand of friendship to all people.”
Tuesday, he’ll continue the outreach with a town hall meeting with 100 Turkish youths in Istanbul – exactly the sort of people who will help shape how America is seen in the Muslim world for generations ahead.