Travel is enriching is you're a presidential candidate

Business Times - 04 Jul 2008

THERE is nothing new about the notion of American politicians running for local, state and national office, including the White House, spending some time in their campaign visiting foreign locales, including those countries with which their voters maintain close cultural, religious and family ties.

After all, America is a country made up of immigrants whose descendants continue to care about the Old Country. Hence, it's not surprising that politicians representing New York tend to travel quite frequently to the three I's - Ireland, Italy and Israel.

If you want to get elected in Chicago, make sure to take a trip to Warsaw; while the favourite travel destination of politicians seeking votes in Florida is Latin America. And guess why many members of Congress from New England love to spend some time in Portugal? You're right. Many immigrants from that country had settled in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and their sons and daughters constitute an important voting bloc today.

From that perspective, the fact that both presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his Democratic rival Barack Obama are preparing to embark on trips abroad fits very much with the tradition of previous election campaigns.

Mr McCain travelled to Colombia on Tuesday, and will visit Mexico next. 'I represent Arizona where Spanish was spoken before English was,' Mr McCain said this week, suggesting that he was hoping that his trip south of the border would help him shore up support among members of the large Hispanic community.

Mr Obama will be joining a congressional visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, and in addition will travel to Europe (Britain, France and Germany) and the Middle East, including to one of the three I's, Israel. And making a long stopover in Israel certainly makes a lot of political sense. Opinion polls suggest that Jewish voters, most of whom tend to support Democratic presidential candidates and are concentrated in large strategic states (New York, California, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) are worried about Mr Obama's commitment to the Jewish state. In a close election race, when a few votes can determine the outcome of the election (remember Florida in 2000), Mr Obama needs to ensure that Jewish voters would not desert the Democrats and vote for Mr McCain.

Hence, a few photo-ops with the Israeli Prime Minister could make a difference on Nov 5.

But in this presidential election year, the significance of the foreign trips of Mr McCain (who has already visited Europe and the Middle East this year) and Mr Obama go beyond chasing after votes. This is a time when America is fighting two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and could soon find itself in a military confrontation with Iran. Then there is the war on terrorism. As well, the sources of much of the economic pain that Americans have been experiencing - high oil prices, job losses, trade deficits and a weak US dollar - are global.

Thus, it is clear that US politicians recognise that burnishing their record on foreign policy, national security and international trade is one of the major requirements for those who want to occupy the White House for the next four years.

In a way, the American voters don't want to repeat the experience they had with George W Bush who had not visited many foreign countries before being elected as president.

Indeed, there is an agreement among foreign policy analysts in Washington that Mr Bush's lack of knowledge of world history and his ignorance of world affairs were responsible in part for the disastrous outcome of the administration's foreign policy in the last eight years. Now, Americans are interested in electing someone who has the experience and the stature that are needed in order to win respect on the global stage, to mingle with world leaders, and to advance US diplomatic and economic interests worldwide.

Being provincial certainly doesn't cut it anymore since it doesn't prepare you to be a great US president in the global age.

Mr McCain has certainly used his trips to Iraq to highlight his national security experience and the respect that he enjoys among military leaders. He has been one of the earlier proponents of the US military 'surge' in Iraq and he has criticised Mr Obama for not spending more time in Iraq in order to learn about what the Republican candidate describes as the 'success' of the US policy there.

Mr McCain's trips to Colombia and Mexico are part of an effort to stress his commitment to free trade. He has been a strong supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) with Mexico (and Canada) and has been critical of the Democratic opposition to a proposed bilateral trade agreement with Colombia, a key US trade and military partner in the hemisphere.

According a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 51 per cent of Americans view foreign trade as a 'threat' to the American economy, suggesting that Mr McCain's support for free trade is not going to help him win votes in November, especially not in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan with their high unemployment rates.

But Mr McCain's aides insist that the trip and his strong position on trade could help draw attention to their candidate's understating of global issues and his commitment to internationalist principles.

'I understand it's very tough. But for me to give up my advocacy of free trade would be a betrayal of trust,' Mr McCain told reporters this week. 'And the most precious commodity I have with the American people is that they trust me.'

While Mr Obama has travelled, lived and studied abroad, his relatively young age and lack of experience in Washington could raise some doubts among voters about his readiness to become the leader of a global military and economic superpower.

Mr Obama's aides hope that his trips to Britain, France and Germany - where he is expected to enjoy an enthusiastic welcome by members of the political and media elite and the general public - would help dispel these concerns among Americans.

The image of the youthful and charismatic African-American and multicultural Mr Obama schmoozing with the European leaders and giving high-fives to his young fans in Paris, London and Berlin, and being celebrated as the 'new JFK' - creating a sense of a transatlantic Obamania - could play quite well among many American voters.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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