Remember the 3-o'clock-in-the-morning test--Hillary Clinton's dig at Barack Obama's commander-in-chief credentials during the primaries? As Obama heads to Europe and the Mideast this coming week, he is embarking on what might be called his "Ich bin ein Commander" test. It may well be the decisive one of his candidacy, especially with so many media stars--including three network anchors--along for the ride. One major reason why Obama's opponent, John McCain, has managed so far to rise above the public's grim assessment of the Republican Party is that, for many voters, he has already passed this test. Even though Americans think by a two-to-one margin Obama would do more to improve the country's image abroad than McCain, according to the new Washington Post-ABC News survey, only 48 percent said the Democrat would make a good commander in chief compared to 72 percent for his Republican rival. And "head to head, McCain was judged as the one with greater knowledge of the world by more than 2 to 1," the Post reported.
McCain has rightly hammered away at Obama's failure to visit Afghanistan at all and not to have traveled to Iraq since January 2006. That means the Democratic senator missed witnessing the sectarian violence that roiled Iraq for more a year, and he has not had a firsthand look at the surge's success even as he has continued to say he would withdraw troops within 16 months of his presidency. A new McCain campaign video shows a series of devastating clips from Obama's appearances on "Meet the Press" and other shows in 2006 and 2007, one of which quotes him as saying things were "actually worsening" in Iraq after surge. "Now he says the surge is working," the video proclaims, and it then proceeds to feature clips of Obama later praising the results in Iraq. The video also shows Obama seeming to fudge on his pledge of immediate withdrawal from Iraq. In the hands of Republican researchers, Obama's signature campaign line--"Change we can believe in"--is starting to take on an ironic sting. The Washington Post-ABC poll also shows that the public is now divided between the two senators' views of how to deal with Iraq.
Obama aides protest that public opinion simply needs to catch up with the facts. And it is true that on several key foreign-policy issues, both McCain and the Bush administration--as well as conventional wisdom--have been moving toward Obama's position, rather than the other way around. Obama was the first major candidate to call for a swift diversion of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and now both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have echoed those views. McCain himself, who had called Iraq the central front in the war on terror in the early months of his campaign, this week announced that he would send an additional three brigades to Afghanistan (one-upping Obama,who has called for two brigades). Obama has also consistently said--often to hoots of criticism from both Hillary Clinton and McCain for his supposed naiveté--that he would negotiate direcly with Iran over its nuclear program. Now the Bush administration is sending, for the first time, an envoy to the talks with Tehran taking place in Geneva (though the U.S. representative, Under Secretary of State Bill Burns, is not expected to engage in formal direct talks). The administration is also talking about opening a special interests office in Tehran. And on Pakistan, Obama has long called for greater humanitarian aid to help that country wean itself from extremism. Now, in a bipartisan effort, Sens. Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden have sponsored a bill that would authorize $7.5 billion over five years in aid for building schools, roads, clinics and other development projects. All that should be proof enough, says a top Obama adviser, that "the threshold question is whether you have the policies and the judgment" to be commander in chief.
Still, reality doesn't always catch up with perception in time for an election. And despite survey numbers that consistently show Americans more concerned about the economy and domestic issues than Iraq and other international issues, the commander-in-chief test is often the decisive one when it's time to enter the voting booth. "It's an issue that's front and center now," says presidential historian Robert Dallek, especially if the nation perceives itself to be at war. "In 1940, the European war was in full throttle, and people were willing to break the two-term barrier. Even though [GOP challenger] Wendell Wilkie was seen as competent, it was a time of international crisis. They wanted to stick with proven authority." The difference, of course, is that Franklin Roosevelt was then an incumbent, while the public still has questions about whether McCain constitutes such a "proven authority," says Dallek. Yet it is also clear that the Arizona senator has to a large extent escaped the public's growing mistrust of the Republican Party because "he is seen as a national hero and someone who is competent to be commander in chief," Dallek says.
The warm embrace that Obama will receive on his overseas trip is sure to be a boost, coming at a time when people are desperate for a new optimism about the perception of America in the world. "What will help him is that in contrast to the very icy response that Bush gets, Obama's going to be greeted as some kind of Second Coming," says Dallek. But if he stumbles--especially with such high expectations--he could end up looking like an innocent abroad, which would produce precisely the opposite effect Obama is seeking. With so much to prove, there is also the danger of overreaching on this trip. The Democratic candidate, for example, had expressed interest in speaking at the Brandenberg Gate near the site of the old Berlin Wall--the venue of Ronald Reagan's famous 1987 exhortation to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." (JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech took place in another part of the city.) But German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed doubts about an Obama appearance, reminding everyone that this was principally a political, not a diplomatic, visit by a man who is not yet president. At a time when the Republicans are deriding Obama as a political changeling, this little contretemps was not a good way to start off his foreign tour. "If people aren't comfortable with idea of Barack Obama as commander in chief it can definitely prevent his election," says Larry Hugick, a pollster for Princeton Survey Research Associates and NEWSWEEK. It is a test that Obama must still pass, starting now.