Obama's Europe trip could pay benefits abroad, at homeBy Richard Wolf
May 20, 2011
WASHINGTON — Fresh from his focus on the Mideast , President Obama launches a week-long trip to Europe Sunday that's intended to strengthen his hand on both sides of the Atlantic.
A state visit at Buckingham Palace and a G-8 summit in France will be sandwiched between Obama's first forays to Ireland and Poland, ancestral homelands for millions of American voters.
Obama will trace his own roots in Ireland, where his great-great-great grandfather was born in 1830. Then Obama will turn to relations with European allies and particularly Poland, a key central European nation that has felt slighted for years.
For all the pomp and circumstance, however, the president cannot expect to return with many concrete achievements. The problems he will confront, from Europe's debt crises to the Middle East's violent protests, offer no quick solutions. "These are questions to which there are not good answers," says Charles Kupchan, former director for European affairs at the White House National Security Council. "Obama will not come home from Europe having solved any of these problems."
Still, Obama's eighth trip to Europe looms as perhaps his most significant foreign sojourn this year. It enables him to solidify ties with his closest allies on a range of security and economic issues while scoring points with the voters back home.
Keeping with tradition
The president's first trip to Ireland will highlight his Irish ancestry. He'll touch down in the village of Moneygall, population 296, where a pub boasts an Obama bust on the bar.
There may be just 4.5 million people in Ireland, but there are 36.3 million in the United States who claim Irish ancestors. That includes at least one in eight in key states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Indiana.
"This guy really has one of the most authentic Irish ancestries that I have ever seen," says Stella O'Leary, president of Irish American Democrats, which created
"O'Bama" buttons for his 2008 campaign. The visit, set to include a speech to tens of thousands in Dublin, "will absolutely help his image with the Irish-American community," she says.
Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., chairman of the congressional Friends of Ireland, says Obama's visit follows in a tradition begun by John F. Kennedy and continued by most presidents since — most notably Bill Clinton, who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. But Irish-Americans, King says, "don't fit into any neat category." Like the nearly 10 million Polish-Americans, they are "ethnic voters, who often are swing voters," he says.
Irish ambassador to the United States Michael Collins touts Obama's heritage to reporters covering the trip, complete with a family tree going back nine generations to 1698. "His background is obviously multidimensional," Collins says.
Polish-Americans will appreciate Obama's last stop, says Jim Zogby, who heads the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council. "It's a community that's up for grabs," particularly in Midwest swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, Zogby says.
Shoring up allies
For a president who grew up in Hawaii and made East Asia a major focus of his foreign policy, spending nearly a week in Europe is intended to remind key allies of their importance. "The administration has realized that when it comes to getting things done, Europe is the first place you go," Kupchan says.
Adding Warsaw to the trip could help relations with Poland, which objected to Obama's decision in 2009 against basing a missile-defense system there and his resetting of relations with Russia. Obama's plans to attend former president Lech Kaczynski's funeral after a plane crash in April 2010 had to be abandoned when ash from a volcano in Iceland grounded Air Force One.
Among the key issues Obama will confront:
• The impact of debt crises in Ireland, Greece and Portugal on the European Union. Those countries have been forced on to austerity through bailout packages. Other countries such as Britain also are cutting government spending and risking public antipathy.
"Washington needs to understand that the Europe that comes out of this crisis may be a very different Europe," says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
• Concern about the NATO military campaign in Libya, which has dragged on for two months. "All this has led to the question of how long can we keep this up," says CSIS senior vice president Stephen Flanagan. "There's a sense that this can't go on indefinitely."