How Obama Became Acting President
It almost seems like a gag worthy of "Borat": A smooth-talking rookie senator with an exotic name passes himself off as the incumbent American president to credulous foreigners. But to dismiss Barack Obama's magical mystery tour through old Europe and two war zones as a media-made fairy tale would be to underestimate the ingenious politics of the moment. History was on the march well before Mr. Obama boarded his plane, and his trip was perfectly timed to reap the whirlwind.
He never would have been treated as a president-in-waiting by heads of state or network talking heads if all he offered were charisma, slick rhetoric and stunning visuals. What drew them instead was the raw power Mr. Obama has amassed: the power to start shaping events and the power to move markets, including TV ratings. (Even "Access Hollywood" mustered a 20 percent audience jump by hosting the Obama family.) Power begets more power, absolutely.
The growing Obama clout derives not from national polls, where his lead is modest. Nor is it a gift from the press, which still gives free passes to its old bus mate John McCain. It was laughable to watch journalists stamp their feet last week to try to push Mr. Obama into saying he was "wrong" about the surge. More than five years and 4,100 American fatalities later, they're still not demanding that Mr. McCain admit he was wrong when he assured us that our adventure in Iraq would be fast, produce little American "bloodletting" and "be paid for by the Iraqis."
Never mind. This election remains about the present and the future, where Iraq's $10 billion a month drain on American pocketbooks and military readiness is just one moving part in a matrix of national crises stretching from the gas pump to Pakistan. That's the high-rolling political casino where Mr. Obama amassed the chips he cashed in last week. The "change" that he can at times wield like a glib marketing gimmick is increasingly becoming a substantive reality - sometimes through Mr. Obama's instigation, sometimes by luck. Obama-branded change is snowballing, whether it's change you happen to believe in or not.
Looking back now, we can see that the fortnight preceding the candidate's flight to Kuwait was like a sequence in an old movie where wind blows away calendar pages to announce an epochal plot turn. First, on July 7, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, dissed Bush dogma by raising the prospect of a withdrawal timetable for our troops. Then, on July 15, Mr. McCain suddenly noticed that more Americans are dying in Afghanistan than Iraq and called for more American forces to be sent there. It was a long-overdue recognition of the obvious that he could no longer avoid: both Robert Gates, the defense secretary, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had already called for more American troops to battle the resurgent Taliban, echoing the policy proposed by Mr. Obama a year ago.
On July 17 we learned that President Bush, who had labeled direct talks with Iran "appeasement," would send the No. 3 official in the State Department to multilateral nuclear talks with Iran. Lest anyone doubt that the White House had moved away from the rigid stand endorsed by Mr. McCain and toward Mr. Obama's, a former Rumsfeld apparatchik weighed in on The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page: "Now Bush Is Appeasing Iran."
Within 24 hours, the White House did another U-turn, endorsing an Iraq withdrawal timetable as long as it was labeled a "general time horizon." In a flash, as Mr. Obama touched down in Kuwait, Mr. Maliki approvingly cited the Democratic candidate by name while laying out a troop-withdrawal calendar of his own that, like Mr. Obama's, would wind down in 2010. On Tuesday, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, announced a major drawdown of his nation's troops by early 2009.
But it's not merely the foreign policy consensus that is shifting Obama-ward. The Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens has now joined another high-profile McCain supporter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in knocking the McCain nostrum that America can drill its way out of its energy crisis. Mr. Pickens, who financed the Swift-boat campaign smearing John Kerry in 2004, was thought to be a sugar daddy for similar assaults against the Democrats this year. Instead, he is underwriting nonpartisan ads promoting wind power and speaks of how he would welcome Al Gore as energy czar if there's an Obama administration.
The Obama stampede is forcing Mr. McCain to surrender on other domestic fronts. After the Democrat ran ads in 14 states berating chief executives who are "making more in 10 minutes" than many workers do in a year, a newly populist Mr. McCain began railing against "corporate greed" - much as he also followed Mr. Obama's example and belatedly endorsed a homeowners' bailout he had at first opposed. Given that Mr. McCain has already used a refitted, hand-me-down Obama campaign slogan ("A Leader You Can Believe In"), it can't be long before he takes up fist bumps. They've become the rage among young (nonterrorist) American businessmen, according to USA Today.
"We have one president at a time," Mr. Obama is careful to say. True, but the sitting president, a lame duck despised by voters and shunned by his own party's candidates, now has all the gravitas of Mr. Cellophane in "Chicago." The opening for a successor arrived prematurely, and the vacuum had been waiting to be filled. What was most striking about the Obama speech in Berlin was not anything he said so much as the alternative reality it fostered: many American children have never before seen huge crowds turn out abroad to wave American flags instead of burn them.
Mr. McCain could also have stepped into the leadership gap left by Mr. Bush's de facto abdication. His inability to even make a stab at doing so is troubling. While drama-queen commentators on television last week were busy building up false suspense about the Obama trip - will he make a world-class gaffe? will he have too large an audience in Germany? - few focused on the alarms that Mr. McCain's behavior at home raise about his fitness to be president.
Once again the candidate was making factual errors about the only subject he cares about, imagining an Iraq-Pakistan border and garbling the chronology of the Anbar Awakening. Once again he displayed a tantrum-prone temperament ill-suited to a high-pressure 21st-century presidency. His grim-faced crusade to brand his opponent as a traitor who wants to "lose a war" isn't even a competent impersonation of Joe McCarthy. Mr. McCain comes off instead like the ineffectual Mr. Wilson, the retired neighbor perpetually busting a gasket at the antics of pesky little Dennis the Menace.
The week's most revealing incident occurred on Wednesday when the new, supposedly improved McCain campaign management finalized its grand plan to counter Mr. Obama's Berlin speech with a "Mission Accomplished"-like helicopter landing on an oil rig off Louisiana's coast. The announcement was posted on politico.com even as any American with a television could see that Hurricane Dolly was imminent. Needless to say, this bit of theater was almost immediately "postponed" but not before raising the question of whether a McCain administration would be just as hapless in anticipating the next Katrina as the Bush-Brownie storm watch.
When not plotting such stunts, the McCain campaign whines about its lack of press attention like a lover jilted for a younger guy. The McCain camp should be careful what it wishes for. As its relentless goading of Mr. Obama to visit Iraq only ratcheted up anticipation for the Democrat's triumphant trip, so its insistent demand for joint town-hall meetings with Mr. Obama and for more televised chronicling of Mr. McCain's wanderings could be self-inflicted disasters in the making.
Mr. McCain may be most comfortable at town-hall meetings before largely friendly crowds, but his performance under pressure at this year's G.O.P. primary debates was erratic. His sound-bite-deep knowledge of the country's No. 1 issue, the economy, is a Gerald Ford train wreck waiting to happen in any matchup with Mr. Obama that requires focused, time-limited answers rather than rambling.
During Mr. McCain's last two tours of the Middle East - conducted without the invasive scrutiny of network anchors - the only news he generated was his confusion of Sunni with Shia and his embarrassing stroll through a "safe" Baghdad market with helicopter cover. He should thank his stars that few TV viewers saw that he was even less at home when walking through a chaotic Pennsylvania supermarket last week. He inveighed against the price of milk while reading from a note card and felt the pain of a shopper planted by the local Republican Party.
The election remains Mr. Obama's to lose, and he could lose it, whether through unexpected events, his own vanity or a vice-presidential misfire. But what we've learned this month is that America, our allies and most likely the next Congress are moving toward Mr. Obama's post-Iraq vision of the future, whether he reaches the White House or not. That's some small comfort as we contemplate the strange alternative offered by the Republicans: a candidate so oblivious to our nation's big challenges ahead that he is doubling down in his campaign against both Mr. Maliki and Mr. Obama to be elected commander in chief of the surge.
Frank Rich is a columnist for The New York Times.
© 2008 The New York Times