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Same dance, different tune as Obama show comes to town

To quote a Labor luminary, Kevin Rudd is set to join the conga line and dance behind Barack Obama when the US President comes to town.

But back in 2003, when Mark Latham spat out his infamous invective about the conservative ''suckholes'' kissing up to the US, John Howard and George Bush stood at the peak of their power. The political context - indeed the character of world politics - could hardly be more different today.

When Bush visited in 2007, Sydney's CBD was locked off behind metal fences and locals needed little encouragement to skip town.

By contrast, if you'd told people a year ago that Obama was heading to Australia after the excitement of his inauguration, the conga line of well-wishers would have stretched from Melbourne to Canberra.

Even now, after a year in office - with sinking popularity in the polls at home, a quagmire in Afghanistan, the stubborn persistence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, failing to win the Olympic Games for Chicago, Iran's usual intransigence and whatever other failings have been roped around the neck of the man who promised so much hope and change - Obama remains wildly popular around the world.

A rash of political obituaries have been written on his presidency since a surprise loss last month in the Massachusetts Senate race. All are premature.


This is good for Australia. ''Renewal'' is a word often used to describe the impact Obama has had on the image of America. Tony Abbott used the term yesterday in welcoming news of the President's impending visit to Australia. It's an explicit recognition that under Bush, things went terribly sour.

Obama carries a message of co-operation, recognising that that is precisely what's needed for the times. The big problems confronting the world cannot be solved by one country alone.

Saying and doing are different things, of course, and Obama's record so far has been mixed. On climate change, for instance, all the talk about working together internationally has produced little of substance. The Copenhagen summit was mugged by competing national interests. China flexed its hefty diplomatic muscle, as did America.

But in other arenas, Obama has fared better, to the benefit of Australia. Driving the Group of 20 summit to confront the global economic downturn is an example, an initiative begun by Bush but carried home by Obama. Australia has a seat, as does Indonesia, giving Australia another forum to engage our crucial northern neighbour.

Presidential visits send an important diplomatic message, so it is significant that Obama is coming to Australia in what are still the early days of his term. Only last week in his State of the Union speech, he pledged to focus on domestic problems, creating jobs and bolstering America's flagging economy. It would not have been surprising had his advisers suggested that a long trek to Australia could wait.

But Obama wanted to visit the neighbourhood. Before coming to Australia, he is expected in Jakarta for a much-anticipated return to the country he lived in as a boy. Despite that personal connection, had Obama gone only to Indonesia, it would have been interpreted as a snub to Rudd.

The Prime Minister looked almost giddy confirming Obama's visit. ''This is still, by far above, our most important foreign relationship,'' he gushed, a formula successive Australian leaders have applied to the US alliance for decades. He spoke of Obama, wife ''Michelle and the kids'', seeking to pass off an easy air of familiarity. No doubt the usual topics of the moment will be on the agenda - Afghanistan, climate change, economic recovery.

But it will be interesting to listen for the rhetorical flourishes Obama chooses to describe the modern relationship during a speech to a joint sitting of Parliament. More than Rudd, Obama has a chance to move beyond routine pledges to ''broaden and strengthen the partnerships'' (the White House spokesman's words yesterday) and recast ties between Australia and the US for the modern era.

The safe political preference, to constantly hark back to the war-time experience of the two allies, is getting stale. So, too, is the effort to dredge up an anniversary to mark each visit - this time, the rather prosaic noting of 70 years since Australia set up a diplomatic mission in Washington. Far better if Obama and Rudd showcase how the relationship is relevant to the present generation.

This is a world of rapid change: China and India are surging economies - and despite the lift in regard for America under Obama, polls have shown younger Australians put less store in the US alliance than older Australians. He has a chance to set future ties on a firmer footing.

Obama will inevitably leave an imprint on local politics too. Rudd will hope a little of the presidential aura will rub off on him and blunt opposition claims the PM is too fond of travelling abroad and not focused enough on Australia's interests.

For Abbott, too, there is a test. Foreign policy questions are rarely decisive in election campaigns but are an important part of voters' judgment about a party's readiness for office. Obama's visit will give Abbott his first obvious chance as Opposition Leader to show his vision for Australia in the world.

Daniel Flitton is diplomatic editor.


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