WASHINGTON -- To win the presidency, Barack Obama needs only to battle John McCain to a tie on foreign policy and national security. That means Obama has no need for a great triumph during his trip this week to the Middle East and Europe. His goal is to look safe, sound and competent, and that's how he's playing things.
More and more, 2008 is taking on the contours of 1980. Then, the country, desperate for change after the battering it felt it took during Jimmy Carter's term, was eager to vote for a new direction and a charismatic leader.
But Ronald Reagan was inexperienced in foreign policy. Some of his past statements made swing voters worry that he might blow up the world -- or so Carter's strategists tried to get voters to think. The election stayed close until the final days.
The key moment came in the campaign's single one-on-one debate. Carter may have prevailed on debating points but Reagan was the real winner because he came off as cool, calm and likable, and that was sufficient. In the week that followed, the bottom fell out on Carter.
Obama is in an analogous situation. The country is at least as fed up with Bush as it was with Carter. Polls suggest that if Bush were on the ballot this year, Obama would sweep the country. The race is closer against McCain, who does not inspire the same rage and hatred Bush does. So Republicans hope that voters might yet find their way to voting their doubts about Obama.
But another parallel with 1980, also helpful to Obama, is emerging: Just as Carter effectively strengthened Reagan's arguments by adjusting to the country's more hawkish mood as the election approached -- he boosted defense spending, had the U.S. boycott the Moscow Olympics and took a much harder line on the Soviet Union -- so are Republicans now adjusting to the reaction against Bush's foreign policy and to new realities.
The Obama camp has gleefully noted that over the last week, the administration and McCain have moved closer to Obama's foreign policy positions on issue after issue. Obama called for diplomacy with Iran, and Bush has taken the first steps in that direction, with McCain's support. Obama has long said more American troops were needed in Afghanistan. McCain made a statement to the same effect last week.
Bush also endorsed a "general time horizon" for pulling American troops out of Iraq, although the administration was at great pains to distinguish between its "time horizon" and the 16-month "timeline" Obama has endorsed.
And then over the weekend Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared to give support to Obama's withdrawal plan during an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel.
Under pressure from the administration, Maliki tried to back off. A spokesman said that his words had been "mistranslated," but an separate New York Times translation of the interview revealed that Maliki had said Obama's withdrawal proposal "could be suitable" if tweaked. After the Democrat met with Maliki on Monday, an Iraqi spokesman suggested a withdrawal date eight months later than Obama's. This was still closer to Obama's view than to either Bush's or McCain's.
The upshot in all these cases: Obama's positions came to look safe and reasonable, undercutting McCain's core argument about Obama's inexperience. And if the Bush administration is seen as moving his way, Republicans can hardly dismiss Obama's ideas as dangerous or impractical.
The Obama campaign is under no illusions about McCain's advantage in the polls as a would-be commander in chief. In the Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week, 72 percent said McCain knew enough about world affairs to be a good president, compared with only 56 percent for Obama. Head to head, McCain was judged by more than 2-1 as the candidate with greater knowledge of the world.
Yet even with this foreign policy deficit, Obama led McCain overall, 50 percent to 42 percent. Narrowing the foreign policy gap could allow Obama to open an even larger lead.
As Obama made the rounds in Iraq on Monday, his lieutenants were careful to say nothing for attribution that would detract from Obama's statements or the pictures of his visits with American troops and foreign leaders.
Their calculation is obvious and almost certainly right: Obama is playing it safe because he needs to make Americans feel that they would be safe under his leadership. If he achieves this, he will vastly strengthen his odds of becoming commander in chief.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.