Politics & Government

Obama sees little political benefit from trip abroad

LONDON — Heading home from an overseas trip aimed at strengthening his foreign policy credentials, Sen. Barack Obama said Saturday he's not counting on an immediate political boost and thinks it's just as likely he'll experience a short-term dip in polls simply because he's been out of the country for nine days.

"The reason that I thought this trip was important was I am convinced that many of the issues that we face at home are not going to be solved as effectively unless we have strong partners abroad," Obama said, speaking outside 10 Downing Street after his private meeting with Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

He acknowledged, however, that Americans are mainly focused on issues like gas prices and home foreclosures.

On the Brown-Obama agenda Saturday: terrorism, troops for Iraq and Afghanistan, troubled financial markets, climate change and Mideast peace.

Britain, the United States' closest ally, was the Democratic candidate's final stop after an ambitious run through Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Germany and France.

Throughout the trip, Obama was pummeled by his Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, who depicted him as lacking foreign policy experience as well as judgment. In his Saturday radio address, McCain accused Obama of taking "multiple positions on the surge in Iraq" and, in a mocking tone, said he wonders "how he can deny that the surge in Iraq has succeeded, while at the same time announcing that a surge is just what we need in Afghanistan."

Obama, asked about criticism from McCain's campaign that the trip was a premature victory lap, said it was hard for him to understand where McCain was coming from. "He was telling me I was supposed to take this trip, he suggested it and thought it was a good idea," Obama said, referring to McCain's having challenged him earlier to go see the effects of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq for himself.

He also noted that McCain, too, had visited several foreign countries since the end of the primary season - albeit with less staging, media coverage and international attention.

Obama told reporters he welcomed McCain's partial embrace on Friday of a 16-month timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq.

"We are pleased to see that there's been some convergence around a proposal that we have been making for a year-and-a-half," he said. "The fact that John McCain thinks that we now should put more troops in Afghanistan, I think is a good thing. And that the Bush administration acknowledges that as well."

Arguing that foreign policy issues have been viewed too long through a "prism of politics and ideology," Obama said, "Part of the reason I think you are seeing some convergence is that reality is asserting itself."

In London, Obama huddled with prime ministers past, current and perhaps future.

In what had emerged as a trip pattern, Obama arranged meetings with various political leaders who might actually be calling the shots there in the months or years to come. Those politicians able to snag meetings, meanwhile, were eager for the opportunity, hoping to capitalize on Obama's popularity.

After a breakfast meeting with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, now Mideast envoy, who is still trying to rehabilitate his Iraq War-tarnished image here, Obama sat down with Brown, whose highly unpopular tenure may be over in a matter of months. Obama also met with conservative David Cameron, considered a strong possible contender to replace Brown.

And he saw a friend, skills minister David Lammy, a young politician and fellow Harvard Law alumnus, who some Brits say could one day be their first black prime minister.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in jeopardy because of a corruption scandal and various parties and leaders are angling to replace him. Obama had met with Olmert as well as Israel's president but also scheduled separate meetings with influential figures in the Likud and Labor and Kadima parties angling to replace Olmert.

In France, where the political situation is more stable, Obama met only with President Nicolas Sarkozy. But Sarkozy, whose support of President Bush has been unpopular with many in France, was so eager to play up his affection for Obama that he broke with protocol, holding an effusive joint news conference with the candidate. He hadn't done that with McCain on his recent trip there.

Emerging from his meeting with Brown, Obama faced dozens of feisty British journalists and photographers. "Can we get a wave, sir?" one yelled. Accented chants of "Obama, Obama" from fans gathered down the street competed with some of his initial remarks.

One of the questions Obama fielded was what Brown could do to improve his lot. "I don't have any advice for Prime Minister Brown," he said, but then offered some consolation: "You are always more popular before you're actually in charge of things."