Not long after he touched down at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Saturday, posed for pictures with three American officials, a pair of military men in uniform, and one rather imposing statue of a bald eagle.
It was an ideal photo opportunity for a candidate looking to convince skeptics of his patriotism - just 37 percent of votersObama as "very patriotic" in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll - and his toughness when it comes to foreign policy. And it was typical of the images that have come out of Obama's visit to the Middle East, a stream of television-friendly shots of the presumptive Democratic nominee chatting with troops and meeting with foreign leaders.
Obama has been careful to fortify these images with words: On Sunday, the Illinois senatorthe Bush administration to move more troops into Afghanistan as soon as possible during an appearance on "Face The Nation." He also reiterated his willingness to authorize unilateral U.S. action against terrorist targets in Pakistan's tribal areas if the Pakistani government will not act.
Obama's decision to travel to two war zones while highlighting his relatively hawkish rhetoric on Afghanistan and Pakistan reflects an attempt to deal with a problem faced by every Democratic presidential candidate since the Vietnam era: The perception that he is not as strong as his Republican rival when it comes to national security. In last week's poll, just 24 percent of respondents said it was "very likely" Obama would be an effective commander in chief. Nearly double that percentage - forty-six percent - said the same of his rival, presumptive GOP nominee.
"Democrats start with one hand tied behind their back," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked for Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter. "It's a hell of a legacy that they inherited from the 1960s. This isn't something that started with Barack Obama."
It is something that Obama appeared to have one major advantage on from the outset, however, thanks to his early opposition to the Iraq War, which most Americans now view as a mistake. But while that early opposition helped drive Obama's candidacy in its infancy, it also positioned him in the public imagination as something less than a hawk. And his call for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq has left him open to charges that he is looking to effectively "surrender," as his rival puts it. (Though Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's recent apparent endorsement of Obama's timeframe took some of the bite out of that claim.) Republicans have also hammered Obama for not visiting the country before this trip since the start of 2006.
McCain, meanwhile, built his own candidacy on his judgment on foreign affairs - most notably, his support for the successful troop "surge" in Iraq, which Obama opposed. As Obama has worked to establish his foreign policy bona fides, McCain's campaign has repeatedly painted the relatively new-to-the-national-scene Democrat as naive and misguided in his plan for dealing with countries like Iraq and Iran.
After Obama told ABC News Monday he would still not support the surge if he had it to do again, McCain's camp suggested in an email that a "candidate who places his political ambition ahead of our national interest does not pass the threshold to be commander in chief."
Obama's decision to spotlight his hawkish positions on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said, reflects an attempt to take a page from John F. Kennedy, who went on the offensive on national security by raising the so-called "missile gap" issue against Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign.
"They're trying to put Republicans on the defensive on the one issue Republicans thought they could be on the offensive on," Lehane said.
Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, chief adviser to Democratic nominee John Kerry four years ago, said Obama doesn't need to win the perception battle against McCain on national security - he just needs to convince Americans he is competent to be commander in chief. Shrum also cited the Kennedy-Nixon race, noting that even though voters may have thought Nixon had more experience, Kennedy did enough to convince them he could do the job.
"Are people ever going to think that he's going to be stronger than McCain on national security? Maybe not," he said. "But he doesn't need to be seen as stronger than McCain on national security. He needs to be seen as strong enough on national security."
Obama's positions on Afghanistan and Pakistan reflect "the early Democratic argument that the administration took its eye off where the real fight was," said CBS News political consultant Joe Trippi, who worked as a senior advisor to former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
"It is the same case that was being made by a lot of Democrats just prior to the war even starting - the old argument about why we shouldn't go into Iraq in the first place," said Trippi.
Hess argues that Obama's early opposition to the Iraq War may have given people a false sense of Obama's foreign policy leanings.
"Iraq, or the pullout, may be the exception that proves the rule," he said. "Other than that, he doesn't appear to me to be an old-fashioned Vietnam-era peacenik Democrat at all."
"To that degree, this trip he's taking, which is supposed to be for his education, may turn out to be for the education of the American voter," Hess added.
By Brian Montopoli