David Rothkopf

The three Obamas

The London press was abuzz this weekend with stories of President Obama’s 500-person entourage. No detail was too small to cover, but the thrust of the story was that most of the details were really big, such as his 200-man secret service detail. There also seemed to be real fascination with all the First Toys, ...

Children holding US flags look at a giant screen showing the inauguration of the US' 44th President Barack Obama at a bar in Berlin January 20, 2009. AFP PHOTO JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

The London press was abuzz this weekend with stories of President Obama’s 500-person entourage. No detail was too small to cover, but the thrust of the story was that most of the details were really big, such as his 200-man secret service detail. There also seemed to be real fascination with all the First Toys, the helicopter and the new presidential limo that comes with a name — “The Beast” — that suggests it will soon have its own series or feature in the next Michael Bay movie.

But what the coverage missed was the fact that at the head of this delegation would be not one, but three Barack Obamas. No other country can boast the same kind of high-level representation. Because while each of the 26 delegations at the G20 meeting will be lead by a head of government or state, the U.S. delegation will be led by Barack Obama, media superstar, Barack Obama, president of the United States and Barack Obama, leader of the free world. And for all their similarities, each of these Barack Obamas is likely to have a very different meeting. 

Barack Obama, media superstar, is likely to be in his element, flashbulbs popping, and throngs of spectators lining the streets to catch a glimpse of him. He is the most famous man in the world, telegenic, charming and, oh yes, an African American. For most of the countries in attendance at the G20 meeting, the thought of an ethnic minority rising to the level of political success Obama has achieved is unthinkable and the world is titillated by that, the boldness of his story and his charisma (and with some luck, they are learning something). Who knows, perhaps even Brazil’s President Lula, who this weekend blamed the crisis on white people with blue eyes, will ask Obama if he knows any African American bankers. Or perhaps Silvio Berlusconi, doing everything in his power to remind the world that Italy truly no longer belongs at these meetings of the world’s most powerful countries, will offer one of his racist bon mots like last week’s comments that he was “paler” than Obama. In any event, almost anything anyone does with or near Obama will be caught on a camera and disseminated worldwide within moments. And since there is no such thing as bad publicity for media superstars, even lousy policy outcomes are not likely to dim the brightest shining star in the political galaxy.

Barack Obama, president of the United States, has a tougher job on his hands. He has to balance domestic political realities with international imperatives. This trip is really his diplomatic coming out party, a chance to determine whether he is not only a star but a genuine world leader. In a few short days he will meet with top representatives of almost every really important country in the world and each of those meetings will raise complex issues. Obama has to master those complexities and produce real advances on both the economic and international security fronts. As the FT detailed well in Monday’s lead editorial, he needs to get the IMF recapitalized (likely), make progress on getting sufficiently robust stimulus packages underway internationally (considerably less likely), make progress on restoring order and confidence to financial markets (we will do less than we should), and stemming the tide of protectionism (the leaders will swear to do this on stacks of bibles all manufactured exclusively in their home countries.) 

On all these points, it’s tough to be president of the United States: We need the IMF to have the cash needed to stem the downward spiral, but the Congress is going to balk at paying. We would like other countries to pull their weight on solving this global problem but they think and will say that we started it. We have huge stakes in good global regulation but choke on ceding authority to international organizations. And we benefit hugely from free trade and would suffer hugely from protectionism, but reason doesn’t drive trade debates in the United States and the president owes a lot to the unions.

Finally, while the title “leader of the free world” seems a little antiquated given the end of the Cold War, it is still the moniker that most closely captures the special role the U.S. president assumes when it comes to international leadership. This, in many respects, is the most important of the three Obamas and the one who faces the most changed reality. America, reeling from the disrepute and anger of the Bush years, had hoped to recover, but instead is seen as the cause of the current global economic crisis. So, Obama will be on the defensive and, given our financial state, the country that is the source of his power will legitimately be seen as somewhat diminished. Further, the trends of the past several years have pushed to the fore a new set of major powers all of which are now demanding enhanced roles. That’s the reason the G20 and not the G8 is meeting in the first place…and it’s the reason that when Obama decided to take the lead on shaping a leader of major economies on climate issues, 17 countries were selected. (Excellent initiative.)  All critical discussions of a global nature must now include China, India, and Russia and each country poses serious challenges for Obama if he is to continue to be the de facto chairman of the world. Further, when Obama heads to NATO meetings it will be clear that whether the United States is becoming more multilateral in its orientation out of necessity or desire, leading is hard when your primary ally — Europe — is fractured and has grown accustomed to having the United States pay more and take more risk than Obama would like. 

Obviously, all three Obamas would like to have a good trip. But frankly, they should be happy if two out of three feel it’s a win. That’ll be a good outcome for a young presidency. But if it’s only the sizzle of Obama Superstar and the other two can’t deliver on the big issues at stake, he’ll be happy to get back home and resume dealing with the easy problems like Congress, health care, reinventing U.S. energy markets, and saving Detroit.


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