John McCain and Obama's Trip: A Failure of Bravado

John McCain and Republicans have repeatedly criticized Barack Obama for not visiting Iraq and consulting with the military and political leaders there. Many Republican officials and conservative bloggers mocked him by starting a clock keeping track of how many days it has been since Obama last visited Iraq. These clocks have been common fixtures on Republican and conservative blogs. The Republican National Committee was the impetus behind this clock, as this quote from Chairman Robert Duncan indicates:

"Barack Obama has only visited Iraq once--and that was 871 days ago. Obama's failure to visit Iraq, listen and learn firsthand, and witness the surge's progress demonstrates weak leadership that disqualifies him from being Commander in Chief."
Even Republican vice presidential hopeful Mitt Romney blasted Obama for not visiting Iraq:
"I don’t see how a United States senator who is looking to be the nominee of his party and create policy with regards to terrorism and policy with regards to Iraq could simply avoid going to Iraq and learning about how the surge was working. I mean the surge was working. It's too bad he missed it."
Obama eventually called their bluff and scheduled a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe. The McCain campaign initially minimized Obama's trip as an overseas campaign rally (after ridiculing him for not even going), and that's when the wheels came off.

In just one week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has come out in support of Obama's plan by saying he wants military troops to leave Iraq by 2010. President Bush is calling for a "general time horizon" regarding the future in Iraq which contradicts McCain's position of not creating "timelines." And the United States has recently sent mid-level envoys to meet with the Iranians in Switzerland, further buttressing Obama's openness to initiating dialogues with rogue nations. And as the situation in Iraq improves, the battle in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly perilous. Now it might become militarily necessary for troops to be taken out of Iraq and redeployed to Afghanistan to help stabilize the situation there. That further undercuts McCain's message of staying in Iraq until "victory" is achieved. This is all quite validating for Barack Obama while making John McCain's positions look increasingly lonely.

Now Obama is getting favorable press coverage and gets to look presidential shaking hands with the soldiers and leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan while McCain gives press conferences with President George H.W. Bush in Maine. He even scored more political gold by making a tough basketball shot in a gym surrounded by soldiers. The Obama campaign couldn't have asked for better imagery. Even though making a basketball shot has nothing to do with one's ability to govern, Obama actually made himself look cool while perhaps subtly reminding voters of his youth--in contrast to the elder McCain. It also works against the elitist caricature because elitists don't know what to do with basketballs, much less know how to shoot them.

The pictures and videos of Obama shaking hands and smiling with the troops in Iraq shows that the military likes him. Republicans who accused liberals and Democrats of "not supporting the troops" should also have egg on their faces because the cheering troops in the videos that have come from his trip so far suggest that Obama is actually quite popular among them.

So now Obama is traveling from country to country and meeting various military and foreign leaders with all of the major media outlets in tow. He looks presidential. He's receiving enthusiastic crowds. He's giving voters the opportunity to actually see him conducting mock presidential duties. And that undercuts the common McCain attack of Obama being inexperienced because the photos and videos of him in Iraq are suggesting that even if he may be inexperienced, he is at least experienced enough.

Obama obviously won't be an expert on international relations after this one trip, but it's difficult to criticize Obama for not going to Iraq and then criticize him for actually going. And if Obama's not going to Iraq was such a big deal earlier, why are so many Republicans and conservatives minimizing the trip's significance now? Complaints about how much money this trip is costing taxpayers seems a bit silly because his opponents are the ones who goaded him into making this trip to begin with. And McCain has visited Iraq at taxpayers' expense several times, so it would seem that conservatives' outrage is misplaced.

McCain forced Obama to play on his turf and so far, Obama is rising to the challenge. Obama will probably cut into McCain's lead when it comes to military and foreign affairs. And this trip has knocked McCain out of the headlines. And even worse, it will be hard for McCain to criticize Obama's trip in the future without it sounding like sour grapes. Oh, and because he went, McCain lost his talking point about Obama not talking with the military leaders there too.

So McCain has to find a way to make himself relevant again or risk falling too far behind Obama in the polls to catch up without help. One possible way to seize the microphone would be to name his running mate early. But this would give him one less tool in his arsenal that he could use after the Olympics and the Democratic Convention. Another option is to go back to Iraq, but that may make it seem like he's going for political reasons (to keep up with Obama) instead of pragmatic reasons (to get information from the military commanders there).

McCain is making some political hay out of the New York Times' rejection of his essay on Iraq in its op-ed pages. Complaining about media bias is always a good way to drum up support among the conservative base, but it is worth mentioning that the New York Times endorsed John McCain in the Republican primaries and did not endorse Barack Obama (the Times endorsed Hillary Clinton instead). And is it in McCain's best interest to play the victim at home while Obama is looking strong overseas?

The moral of the story is to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. This is an example of simple politics and talking points backfiring and leaving your campaign worse off than you would have been had you kept your mouth shut.

12 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

About the issue of political bias, truly denying that political bias really does exist is proof that it does exist! Like it or not, the anti-Republican and anti-conservative media bias has existed since soon after the New Deal was created, and it has truly gotten worse ever since. Today, conservatives dominate talk radio throughout the U.S., while leftist dominate everything else at a worldwide level: the entertainment world, television, and everything involving writing. For leftists that still attack the Fox News Channel, where are there also many other "truly conservative television channels" in existence today, and how is just one T.V. channel that's considered conservative also truly considered balance in the total world of television? By the way, the Fox News Channel has also slowly moved more to the political left every year with the hiring of Herald Ford, Jr. adding to their slow shift to the political left. The problem with political bias and U.S. conservatives is that they still limit the discussions of political bias to just from within the U.S. when it's actually a worldwide phenomenon. The other problem is the the issue of political media bias is really a very small example of the actual problem: Worldwide Political Correctness. Worldwide political correctness on all of the issues truly continues to get even worse for everybody, everyday, everywhere in the entire world: Political indoctrination in many schools at every level worldwide, the continuing "dumbing down" of both people and tests worldwide, the continuing political bias in both the world media and in the entertainment world, the continuing paranoia of truly trying not to offend anybody through the use of doublespeak (for example, replacing "illegal immigration" with "undocumented workers"), and the continuing "playing with people's emotions" whenever it comes to issues like man-made global warming/other Earth issues, children's issues, senior citizen issues, education issues, nursing issues, other health care/human services issues, animal issues, etc. Like it or not, all worldwide political correctness should truly be a major issue for the entire world to successfully resolve asap.

Jennifer Read said...

Anthony, you're right, the Obama trip abroad seems to be going exceedingly well for him so far. Like you mentioned, his campaign has a great knack for picking up on what visuals to present to the public (like the b-ball photo-op with the troops). Poor McCain is going to really struggle to get noticed between now and the GOP convention. Great post.

Brett said...

We'll have to see on the "soldiers liking Obama" bit at voting time - it would be extremely fascinating (and good, speaking as a Democrat) if he actually brought some military voters over to him. They've tended to be extremely Republican since World War 2, and particularly so in recent years.

In response to anonymous -

You're forgetting that that "one television channel" is the highest rated news channel on television (with ratings almost high enough on average as equal to that of its two rivals, MSNBC and CNN, combined), and they still continue to have the most conservative mainline pundits and hosts.

Incidently, I'd argue that the Right Wing has become the main source of Political Correctness. Just think of all its sacred cows, like "OMG you must support the troops" with anyone even suggesting otherwise denounced with literally pounds of shrill rhetoric. Or, better yet, the whole "you can't insult Americans by pointing out problems with America" (witness the response to Reverend Wright). Can you name a single Left Wing sacred cow that hasn't been mercilessly attacked in the mainstream media and non-mainstream media? The closest you might find is racism, and being overtly racist is generally considered bad by almost all Americans.

DB said...

Anthony, since you mentioned how the Administration is talking with a rogue nation, I thought you might like to see this article about the US opening a US Interests Section in Tehran. I am not sure why this didn't get the press coverage I would expect out of the liberal media. Either way, and Interests Section is one step shy of an Embassy. We will have Diplomats on the ground in Tehran and they sure as hell aren't going to be there to talk to anyone else.

(I am not sure how to make a link in a comment)


Anthony Palmer said...


I can understand claims from Republicans about media bias, but I think it's also important to remember that media organizations are private entities that want to turn a profit. And Obama is better for ratings and circulation than McCain is, apparently. Obama's new, he's fresh, he's hip, and people want to know about him. So that would at least partially explain the discrepancy in coverage. Remember, McCain was the media darling in 2000 and back when the primaries were in full swing last year.

However, media organizations should strive for fairness. I don't dispute that. But fairness doesn't always mean giving both sides equal time if one side is totally wrong or creating a strawman. I wrote a post about media bias several months ago that is listed under "recommended entries" on the main page of this blog. I'd check it out.

As for Fox News, its ratings are higher than CNN's and MSNBC's combined. So that changes the argument that there are two liberal-leaning stations and only one conservative-leaning one.



So far things seem to be going well for Obama, but he has to be very careful not to seem like the presumptive president or to disparage the troops in any way. His interview with Katie Couric may come back to haunt him.



I think Obama should treat the military vote the way Republicans should treat the Black vote. Obama probably will never win a majority of the vet/armed forces vote, but if he can hold down McCain's margins, he may be able to win comfortably.



Thanks for the link! Looks like Bush and Obama aren't so far apart after all, huh? But Obama doesn't have to worry about being tarred as "McSame." Who should get credit here? Obama or Bush?

Thank you all for the comments.

bokonon said...

to anonymous - so, is "Worldwide Political Correctness" more or less dangerous than "The Red Menace"? And where does it stand with regard to ter'r? Please do let us know if there are any other slogans to watch out for... first our president ignores explicit warnings of terrorists using airplanes as weapons,
then he accumulates as much debt in two terms as the entire nation had in two hundred years,
then he OKs kidnapping and torture,
then he allows a great U.S. city to nearly drown while he is playing guitar in California,
and the list goes on.
Now you're telling me that on top of all that, we face a threat from those around the world who care about equal treatment for all, male female black white brown rich poor liberal conservative Buddhist Christian Hindu Jewish Muslim left-handed right-handed etc.?
At least the libruls can't blame THAT on Bush.

Nucular! Nucular! Rah rah rah!

Khaki Elephant said...

Interesting points, Anthony.
Oddly, I found the video of Obama playing baskeball with the troops especially effective. Not only did it show a man at ease in a military setting, it formed a stark contrast to the "old-man" image that McCain needs to shed.

Freadom said...

Great post. A few minor thoughts crossed my mind as I read:

Were the cheering troops staged? Could we say the same for any politician, including McCain as troops cheer on? If Bush is talking about pulling troops from Iraq, does that mean Victory in Iraq is close to being achieved? Since the Times endorsed Hillary and McCain in the primaries, does that mean the paper will endorse McCain for president?

You make a great point here. However, the main point of McCain campaing is that he has been consistent on his military stance, while Obama has swayed quite a bit recently.

Obama might get a brief boost in the polls, but I think when it comes to the general election, imagery will be downplayed by experience. I think this is so because of the communication revolution.

Khaki Elephant said...

True, Freadom. And I think Obama's inability to acknowledge the successes of the surge could come back to bite him.

S.W. Anderson said...

"Barack Obama has only visited Iraq once--and that was 871 days ago. Obama's failure to visit Iraq, listen and learn firsthand, and witness the surge's progress demonstrates weak leadership that disqualifies him from being Commander in Chief."

That's a perfect example of Republicans' own patented combo of anything-to-win spin and chrome-plated, industrial-strength hypocrisy.

Remember, theirs was the party that presented Crawford, Texas' village idiot dressed up in a flight suit and strutting across the deck of an aircraft carrier parked a few miles off the California coast in a staged production that looked like it was out of 1940s Hollywood, erroneously proclaiming victory.

So what if Obama hasn't been to Iraq to carry a plastic turkey for a few feet in a dining hall, during a photo-op drop in? Can you imagine if Lincoln had pulled a stunt like that during the Civil War?

Our most spectacular war victories were in Europe and Japan, ending the world wars. How long, exactly, do the GOP's hard-up smear merchants think Wilson and Roosevelt spent in either theater of War?

Oh, wait. Eisenhower, the architect of D-Day and the ultimate demise of Nazi Germany did go to Korea - to do what today's Republicans would brand as "retreat and defeat."

OK, that's what today's Republicans would call Eisenhower's ending of the Korean War except for two things: his party label and their blatant, overweening hypocrisy.

Anthony Palmer said...


The image I'm thinking of is the one of McCain riding in a golf cart with George HW Bush at the press conference. What a terrible contrast. I was thinking about writing about that picture and giving McCain some advice on media management, but I'm still not sure. But I definitely agree with you on the basketball visuals. Thanks for the comment.



I wish I knew who originally coined this phrase, but have you ever heard a politician say in reference to Vietnam "Why don't we declare victory and get out?" This line of thinking would force both McCain and Obama to acknowledge something they don't want to concede. If the security situation is improved (because of the surge), then why can't the troops come home? Likewise, if we can bring the troops home, isn't that due to the success of the surge? At some point, Obama will have to concede unequivocally that the surge has been successful in reducing violence, but McCain will have to concede that we can't stay in Iraq indefinitely.



Now McCain is criticizing Obama for not vising the troops at a military base in Germany. But earlier he was criticizing Obama for going on this trip because it was happening at taxpayers' expense. The McCain camp and Republicans have been good at branding Obama as an out of touch elitist, but it seems the Obama campaign is going to counter by caricaturing McCain as a crotchety, cantankerous old man. So McCain should choose his battles carefully before he complains because he does have to deal with the temperament issue which contrasts greatly with Obama's "niceness." This should be interesting.



Your name looks very familiar. Are you one of the Fixistas? If so, thanks for dropping by! I always appreciate new voices here.

Thank you for the comments everyone.

Thomas said...

Anthony, I didn't see the Obama interview with Katie Couric? Why was it bad for him?

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.