The Prez in Denmark

Obama’s trip to the climate conference in Denmark could end in failure.

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AXEL SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

When President Barack Obama touches down in Copenhagen, Denmark, tomorrow, he will be entering a hornet’s nest of urgent, competing priorities that will test his negotiating skills like never before. Far from the kumbaya conference that one might expect for a gathering devoted to saving the planet, the two weeks of United Nations-sponsored climate talks have been a pitched battle—a literal street fight, at times—to balance the economic interests of the diverse nations in attendance. Poor, industrializing countries are demanding climate aid; rich nations are wary of overpromising both financial assistance and emissions cuts; while island nations and global hot spots seek some assurance that they will not be left to drown or burn.

Since stepping into the national spotlight, Obama’s political image has been that of a master negotiator: As a legislator in Illinois, he helped to broker a deal between Republicans, Democrats, civil liberties advocates and the police regarding the interrogation of suspects. On the campaign trail, he sold himself as a sensible liberal who could “disagree without being disagreeable.” But in Washington, conventional politics have trumped his attempts at good-faith negotiation on issues such as health care reform. In the Middle East, his team of dedicated diplomats has not been particularly successful in promoting the American position. And the last time Obama tried to turn on the charm in Copenhagen—in support of Chicago’s failed bid to host the Olympic Games—was hardly encouraging.

The climate conference is the first test of the political goodwill that flipped American favorability ratings abroad from 17 to 71 percent since George W. Bush left office. While Obama’s major foreign policy addresses in Berlin, Cairo, and most recently, Oslo, have won plaudits from international observers, the Copenhagen crowd will be a tough one.

The White House upped the stakes significantly when it made the choice to bring Obama to the end of the climate talks rather than the beginning. “Based on his conversations with other leaders and the progress that has already been made … the president believes that continued U.S. leadership can be most productive through his participation at the end,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. That decision, said Andrew Light of the liberal Center for American Progress, “may well have prevented the meeting from ending in a dangerous stalemate.” The president also seems to have faith in his ability to close a deal. But will the Obama treatment—a speech and a handshake—really make a difference?

Chief among Obama’s challenges is the nation he is representing. The United States, with or without a smart, black president, has been an outsized contributor to the problem climate activists have been trying to solve for decades. Mindful that the previous American administration was openly derisive of environmental issues, Obama has stacked his Copenhagen team with seven key cabinet secretaries, a domestic climate czar in Carol Browner, a foreign climate envoy in Todd Stern, former Vice President Al Gore and, in a surprise development, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "We have come to Copenhagen ready to take the steps necessary to achieve a comprehensive and operational new agreement that will provide a foundation for long-term, sustainable economic growth," said Clinton in Denmark Thursday.