When Barack Obama delivered a key foreign policy address in Washington on Tuesday, he spoke in front of an array of US flags, from a podium emblazoned with the slogan, “Judgment to Lead”.
By Andrew Ward in Washington
Over the next few days, he will appear alongside US commanders and troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and meet several world leaders during a week-long tour of the Middle East and Europe.
His closely choreographed stint of foreign policy speeches and travel marks a crucial moment in Mr Obama’s campaign, as he seeks to tackle widespread doubts among US voters about his qualifications to be commander-in-chief.
A Washington Post poll this week showed that only 48 per cent of voters believed that the 46-year-old first-term senator would make an effective military leader, compared with 70 per cent who expressed trust in John McCain, his Republican rival for the presidency.
Surveys are showing record levels of dissatisfaction with the country’s direction, amid mounting economic and financial turmoil, so the political winds are blowing strongly in favour of the Democrats ahead of November’s election.
Yet an average of recent national polls shows Mr Obama only 4 percentage points ahead of Mr McCain – a narrow margin that many analysts attribute to wariness about the Democrat’s inexperience.
Charlie Cook, the pollster and publisher of the Cook Political Report, says the election is less a contest between two candidates than a referendum on Mr Obama’s readiness to lead.
“John McCain is damn near irrelevant to this election,” he says. “This election is all about whether voters reach a comfort level with the idea of Barack Obama as president.”
Mr McCain is striving to ensure that his opponent falls short of that threshold. As a Vietnam war veteran, former prisoner-of-war and foreign policy specialist, his national security credentials are already well-established in voters’ minds.
“I know how to win wars,” the Arizona senator said this week, leaving unspoken the suggestion that Mr Obama does not. “In wartime, judgment and experience matter … The commander-in-chief doesn’t get a learning curve.”
In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Obama reiterated his intention to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office and to refocus attention on Afghanistan. He accepted that the US “surge” strategy had helped reduce violence in Iraq, but said the recent tactical gains could not reverse the underlying strategic failure of the war.
Mr Cook believes that nothing the candidates say on the wars between now and November is going to make much difference to most voters. “People who are going to vote for McCain because of Iraq are already locked in. It’s the same with people who are going to vote for Obama because of the war,” he says.
The people whose votes are still up for grabs are the independents and “soft partisans”, who tend to make their choice based on “vague impressions and personalities”, according to Mr Cook.
Few of them will have heard or read about Mr Obama’s speech on Tuesday. But if they see television pictures of his international tour over the next few days and decide he looks like a convincing commander-in-chief, the trip may have served its primary purpose.