The president earned the right to sleep in Wednesday. At the White House, there were no public events and no briefings. After returning home at 3 a.m., President Obama was holding private meetings with his economic team and, maybe, savoring the memories of his first trip to Europe as president.
Midway through his trip, the president said, "I think we did OK." On one level, he was being very modest. The trip was a personal triumph for Obama. Throughout his marathon of speeches, town hall-style meetings, summits and one-on-one talks with foreign leaders, he received fawning media coverage. He was greeted with enthusiasm by European leaders and was extremely popular with ordinary people.
Travels Give Obama A Boost
Robert Kagan, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment, says that can't help but make Americans happy.
"He appears to be much beloved in the world, which I think Americans were yearning for," Kagan says. "I think it always makes Americans uncomfortable if they think that the vast majority of the world is hostile or unhappy with them."
It can be politically risky for a U.S. president to travel abroad when there is a recession at home (see: Bush, George Herbert Walker). Obama is about to leave again next week for visits to Mexico and the Caribbean. So far, however, the president's travels seem to have only helped him at home.
"I did notice his approval ratings did go up while he was abroad," says White House aide Bill Burton, who added the obligatory disclaimer that the White House is, of course, not guided by polls.
Turning Popularity Into Results
The big question remains, however: Can Obama turn his popularity overseas into real leverage with U.S. allies?
He did get a few results last week: a new framework for international financial regulation and billions more in loans from the International Monetary Fund.
Kagan says, however, that so far the Obama administration is pushing on a lot of open doors.
"They are offering others what the others are happy to receive," he says. "A less-unilateral America; arms-control negotiations, which the Russians do want; talks with the Iranians, which the Europeans want to see.
"The question will come when we're asking people to do things that they didn't want to do; will there be any leverage to get them to do that?"
Some Reasons For Skepticism
Kagan is skeptical, and he has reason to be. On his big priorities, Obama couldn't convince the Europeans to commit to many more troops in Afghanistan or more economic stimulus. And on the detainees held at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he convinced only the French to commit to taking one prisoner.
Obama's top political adviser, David Axelrod, says that is the wrong way to look at this trip. He and other White House aides argue that just putting U.S. diplomatic relations back on positive footing is achievement enough; big, tangible gains will come later.
"Why didn't the waters part, the sun shine and all ills of the world disappear because President Obama came to Europe this week?" Axelrod said. "That wasn't our expectation. That'll take at least a few weeks."
A Strategy For Cooperation
Jokes aside, that's the administration's premise: If the president shows some deference and humility to U.S. partners now, he can win their cooperation down the road on issues like climate change, the global economy or nuclear proliferation.
Take the Russians: The president is embarking on a new round of arms-control negotiations, a top Russian priority, in the hopes that later, the Russians may put pressure on Iran.
P.J. Crowley, who was a national security aide in the Clinton White House, says if you are able to make progress in one portion of the nonproliferation portfolio, it can have broader benefits.
"No guarantee," he says, "but it's a reasonable strategy to take."
It also may be a necessary strategy. While on some issues, such as the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. can conceivably shoulder the burden alone, there is no acceptable unilateral solution to the Iranian nuclear threat. Obama will have to find a way to get the Europeans, Russians and the Chinese to help put pressure on Tehran if it is to be dissuaded from its nuclear program.