Reporting from Cannes, France -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened a select group of European leaders here the other day for a private session in which he welcomed them and then promptly yielded the floor to President Obama.
“He said, ‘What do you think, Barack?’” one Obama advisor said, recounting a meeting in which the U.S. president acted as panel chairman for a group trying to work its way through some messy continental politics.
It was an unusual role Obama played while here for the Group of 20 summit of advanced and emerging nations, where the U.S. president usually spends most of the time in the spotlight by virtue of the power of the economy he represents.
But this week Obama was more of an advisor to the troubled European economies, a friend who’d been through hard times and was now trying to make suggestions based on his own experience.
Though it is by no means the role Obama hoped for when he arrived on the world stage three years ago, it was the fulfillment of his own promise back then. He said the U.S. would no longer go its own way in world affairs without consulting others, but rather would seek to act in a more collaborative fashion.
Obama behaved more as a partner among equals here this week, appearing in a television interview with Sarkozy and conducting an after-action news conference that was no longer than those of his counterparts.
Then he closed his visit with a public tribute honoring the longstanding alliance between the U.S. and France. Speaking under a tent in a driving rain, Obama focused on the operation against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi -- and on the sharing by many nations of the responsibility and risk.
“In a historic first, our NATO allies, including France ... helped us to conduct 90% of our strike missions,” Obama said, as he shared a podium with Sarkozy. “That showed more nations bearing the burdens and costs of peace and security. And that’s how our alliance must work in the 21st century.”
The mention of cost was no small matter, given how much Obama must factor it into every foreign commitment in the current economy.
His administration’s announcement during the week that the U.S. would not write a check to bail out Europe came as a surprise to no one. Instead of the flow of money that usually backs up U.S. dominance in such institutions, Obama was offering something else: advice.
The new posture has its political downside. Conservatives already characterize the Obama multilateral approach as “leading from behind,” and the state of the economy only makes things worse.
“The trip presents a tough backdrop for Obama,” said Republican political strategist Kevin Madden, “given all of the domestic political pressure he faces because of his inability to right the U.S. economy. The Europe banking and debt crises aren't helping in that regard.”
Progressives think collaboration should have its limits, too.
The strength of the G-20 is that it is a collaborative forum,
“Breaking away from America's posture during the Bush administration, President Obama is a team player at a time when the global economy needs to work together,” said Sabina Dewan, director of Globalization and International Employment at the Center for American Progress. “But President Obama should have pushed the G-20 to be more specific on jobs. Leaders need to focus on jobs first rather than delegating responsibility to a working group or other institutions.”
Still, Obama appears comfortable in the role. In his interview alongside Sarkozy, Obama told French viewers that he has faith that Europe’s leaders can lead them out of trouble.
“Obviously coordinating between so many countries is difficult,” Obama said, but “there's been excellent leadership on the part of President Sarkozy, (German) Chancellor Merkel and others. And I believe they're determined to move forward.”
Obama then headed for home, where he has his own problems waiting.