After a week that included three international summits, a series of meetings with foreign leaders and continental town hall meetings, President Barack Obama solidified his standing as Leader of the Free World. Although he’s extremely popular overseas, he confirmed this status – from his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about nuclear arms reduction to discussions about the sprawling financial crisis at the G20 Summit to today’s address in the Turkish Parliament calling for “a partnership with the Muslim world.” It’s been at least eight years since the world had seen an American President demonstrate his diplomatic prowess through a combination of intellect, confidence and statesmanship.
But he wasn’t alone in taking a big step in restoring our nation’s stature in the world community: First Lady Michelle Obama made her indelible mark with grace and style. She also delivered her own brand of inspirational, uplifting message when she spoke to a group of underprivileged girls at a London school, telling them that they could achieve their dreams through strong values and hard work.
This unprecedented world tour had many historic comparisons. The most prominent and inevitable was that of John and Jacqueline Kennedy, who took their first international trip as president and first lady a few months after President Kennedy took office. Although they are from two distinct eras, both couples have come to represent the youth, vitality, and vision of a nation in the throes of generational and political shifts. Unlike Kennedy, however, Obama did not suffer a Krushev moment: During a meeting at the 1961 Vienna Summit, Nikita Krushev, premier of then-Communist Soviet Union, placed another layer of ice on the Cold War when he lectured and challenged the young president. On the social front, however, the international press had been so captivated by the charm of Jackie Kennedy 48 years ago that JFK made the famous quip: “I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
Michelle Obama elicited similar responses from the media that followed her every move – most notably, when she and the Queen of England touched in a show of mutual admiration. A note of irony: When the Obamas presented the Queen with the gift of an iPod loaded with show tunes, one of the songs including “Camelot” from the play about King Arthur’s mythical court and its representation of hope and optimism. Camelot, with all its allegory, became the theme of the Kennedy presidency after his assassination in 1963.
Pundits also made other historic references to Obama’s trip, comparing the London G20 Summit – the one-day conference of countries that represent 85% of the world economy – to a similar meeting in the United Kingdom in 1933 when 66 world leaders gathered to grapple with the ravaging effects of the Great Depression (the meeting fell apart when Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to have any restrictions imposed on America related to solving the financial crisis) or the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire, which led to the creation of an new international monetary system and gave birth to the International Monetary Fund. In more recent history, President George Bush’s approach to foreign policy had made him so unpopular at the November 2008 G20 Summit that foreign leaders refused to shake his hand.