It's easy to assume that with jobs, jobs, jobs being the necessary and inevitable focus of the Obama presidency from now until the verdict on his leadership rendered by this November's midterm elections, Obama's presence on the world stage will continue to be diffident and disappointing.
Don't count on it.
I was among the crowd of more than 100,000 people on hand in Berlin's Tiergarten when Obama the candidate showed up to give a speech that raised expectations not only in Germany, but in all of Europe, about the prospects for a new era in U.S.-European relations.
The combination of Republican insistence on a nihilistic commitment to obstructionism and hate-mongering and a certain bewildering lack of dynamism from the White House and Obama himself led to widespread disappointment in Europe about Obama. I'd written before the election in the Berliner Zeitung, where I write a weekly column, that inevitably, Europeans would be disappointed by the it-ain't-pretty-making-sausage realities of Obama as President, but the desire to turn him into a kind of messiah (as one Der Spiegel cover put it) was widespread and unchecked. That almost childlike hope curdled into an odd mix of frustration and continuing hope.
The grand thinkers on foreign-policy theory (yes, some of the same people who had no clue at all that the world was about to be reformed by the events of 1989) love to argue that Europe is irrelevant in the early 21st century, but it was only irrelevant to a Bush White House that tried hard to make it irrelevant. Obama, with very little effort, can and should be able to do better than that.
For example, it's hard to imagine any lasting resolution of the horrible problem of Israel and the Palestinians without a serious effort lasting years -- and one that would work far better with major participation from our European partners, not only in the occasional press statement, but also behind the scenes. So far Obama has failed to develop any true partners in Europe, the way that both Clinton and George W. Bush did. But that's understandable. He's been distracted.
Obama now needs to move beyond the recipe of big speeches in foreign capitals, and pick his spots to show that he's more actively engaged with the world beyond Washington politics. Whatever the actual importance of the arms-control deal reached today between Russia and the United States, as a symbol of a new resolve and confidence, it's an excellent start.
The headline in the New York Times, "Obama Completes Arms Deal With Russia," and the photo of him proud and upright at the podium, flanked by a beaming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (standing nearby) and oddly dour-looking Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (a few steps away) was a good indication of the potential for new energy represented by ending all those interminable months of wrangling -- and worrying -- on health care.
Obama raised expectations very high. It's not too late to follow up on that abroad as well as at home. Here's hoping he does.