His wife may have attracted more camera attention, but the Group of 20 economic summit in London was President Barack Obama's show. He didn't get everything he wanted in his first presidential foray onto the world stage, but he passed his audition.
America's president is not called "leader of the free world" for nothing. Like it or not, the world looks to this country for leadership in the way old folks look to their kids or grandkids for help logging onto the Internet. The world's other leaders appreciate us and resent us at the same time. Sometimes they want our help and sometimes they want to slap us around.
The G-20 meeting, however, did manage to inject another trillion dollars into the financial system, give the stock market a badly needed boost and enable world leaders to take some confident smiles back home. The summit also sent enough new money to poor countries to help prevent their slipping economies from pulling the global recession into deeper crisis.
Obama wanted more commitments to economic stimulus, while other leaders wanted more regulation of our financial markets.
European leaders in particularly don't want to build large public debt loads to pay for stimulus, especially when they blame our cowboy capitalists for the problem. Besides, European countries already direct a bigger portion of government spending than we do into job protections, unemployment benefits and other social safety nets.
Nevertheless, Obama's comfort with give-and-take appears to have relieved world leaders.
A key moment for Obama's bridge-building skills, according to witnesses inside the closed-door sessions, came when he stepped into a spat between China's President Hu Jintao and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The seemingly arcane and inconsequential issue of whether the G-20 would "take note of a list of rogue offshore tax havens or endorse" the list had brought the two leaders to an impasse. Obama helped them work out a deal in which they would only "take note," because the body that produced the list was one to which China did not belong.
In the end, everyone could claim to have saved face. Obama's skills at bringing people together helped put big smiles on the faces of world leaders at the summit's end. Of course, I said the same when he was buttering up congressional Republicans before they turned against his economic stimulus package. Here's hoping he has better luck on with his new overseas friends. The fate of the world depends on it.
And Obama can claim that he has led a global battle against recession.
The same reassuring steadiness that former Secretary of State Colin Powell praised during Obama's presidential campaign showed itself in London last week when it was badly needed to smooth ruffled feathers, reassure world markets and get money flowing again.
On the personal diplomacy front, Obama's camera-friendly wife probably received more attention than he. It is much, much more fun to watch the first lady navigate the etiquette protocols of Old Europe than listen to a bunch of leaders in business suits gab about productivity and debt ratios.
But on the issues that matter to people's lives, this was the president's trip. The G-20 is made up of leaders of 20 major economies that make up about 90 percent of the world's global gross national product. A big part of Obama's G-20 trip, followed by NATO, the European Union and Turkey, is to establish his credentials.
"We exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize the world is a complicated place," Obama said in London, "when we show some element of humility and when we recognize we may not always have the best answer but we can always encourage the best answer."
Translation: Meet the new sheriff. We will lead, but we will also listen. Compared to the previous administration's my-way-or-the-highway attitude ("Either you're with us," President George W. Bush declared, "or you're with the terrorists."), this is a change the world seems ready to believe in.