Washington: First he was Irish, then he was British, and now he’s Polish, too.
US President Barack Obama, during a week traveling through Europe, used his personal story to woo a continent some feel he has neglected, while simultaneously reaching out to important political constituencies back home.
From Ireland to Britain to Poland, Obama - the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother - discovered and exploited his European roots, delighting foreign crowds and inking images that could turn up in presidential campaign commercials next year.
“My name is Barack Obama - of the Moneygall Obamas - and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost along the way,” Obama, joking about the “Irish” spelling of his name, told a crowd of some 25,000 in Dublin, hours after visiting the town where his great-great-great grandfather once lived.
The crowd loved it, and references to his roots continued at his next stop in London.
“I bring warm greetings from tens of millions of Americans who claim British ancestry, including me, through my mother’s family,” he told Queen Elizabeth II.
In Warsaw he talked about his hometown of Chicago and adopted one of its more prominent ethnic groups as his own.
“If you live in Chicago and you haven’t become a little bit Polish, then something’s wrong with you,” he said at a press conference with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
The result? The United States’ first African-American president connected himself personally to three of the four European countries he visited, burnishing his credentials on the continent after an emphasis on Asia in the first years of his administration sparked concern that US focus had shifted dramatically eastward.
Heather Conley, a Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the visit showed Obama could reach out to the “Atlantic Community” in the West and the Asia Pacific region in the East at the same time.
“The visit accomplishes its mission,” she said. “He was certainly clarifying that his personal narrative goes in both directions.”
Few accomplishments, lots of symbolism
That accomplishment may be the main one on a trip that was heavy on imagery but light on substance.
In France - the one country where he did not claim an ancestral or cultural bond - Obama met with fellow leaders from the Group of Eight industrial nations, all of which adopted a unified position that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi must go.
But that was a rare foreign policy achievement on an otherwise largely ceremonial six-day tour.
White House advisers believe that the images of Obama dining with the British queen and meeting with international leaders will quell lingering criticism from opponents that he is a lightweight on the world stage.
Public compliments from British Prime Minister David Cameron about the successful U.S. operation that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden also reinforced Obama’s political strength in the area of national security.
With potential Republican rivals competing to establish their own presidential qualifications, Obama’s trip also helped him appear above the domestic political fray.
Creating enduring images for tens of millions of Irish Americans, a significant voting bloc, and US citizens of British and Polish decent was also a plus.
“The president’s political consultants got some great video for his 2012 TV ads,” said Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. “The Irish stop was golden for the millions who trace their ancestry to Eire. The appealing scenes with the royals can be recycled.”
But the trip was not a complete win in the imagery department. Deadly tornadoes in the US Midwest dominated domestic news coverage while Obama was away and some analysts said many Americans did not even realize he was gone.
The White House was aware of that problem. It scheduled a last-minute televised statement by Obama about the tornadoes on Tuesday morning in London so he could announce a Sunday trip to the affected region.
Shortly after speaking to the cameras, he left to spend the day at Buckingham Palace.
Still, while Americans and Obama’s political advisers fret about the state of the US economy, the president put in a plug for having space to focus on foreign policy such as the democratic upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, which dominated talks in each of the countries he visited.
“Even at a time where I spend most of my day thinking about our economy and how to put folks back to work ... I want the American people to understand we’ve got to leave room for us to continue our tradition of providing leadership when it comes to freedom, democracy, human rights,” he said in Poland.