Minnesota Public Radio online

By Siobhan Heanue

When the president rolled into town, the crowds could hardly contain themselves. The hand-shaking and back-slapping was euphoric. Politicians from both ends of the ideological spectrum angled for a word with Barack Obama, or at least a glimpse.

At least, that's what happened when the president came to Australia.

Obama has wrapped up a whirlwind, two-day tour of Australia, during which he announced the deployment of 2,500 Marines in the northern city of Darwin. In the Australian capital, Canberra, Obama received the kind of effusive welcome he is hard-pressed to find at home these days.

It rated little more than a mention in the American press, but the presidential visit received blanket media coverage in Australia; it was the kind of public relations success most world leaders can only dream of. The sight of Air Force One touching down generated awe and pride in Canberra, a city of just 360,000 people and the seat of Parliament.

During a whistlestop tour that included a speech to Parliament, a visit to a Canberra school and an address to troops in Darwin, Obama was feted as a celebrity and a friend.

Australians feel a deep sense of connection with America and Americans, a feeling that can be traced back to the shared experience of World War II.

Many older Australians who lived through the war still credit the U.S military with saving Australia from the threat of Japanese invasion, a threat that loomed largest when Darwin was bombed in 1942. That event was Australia's Pearl Harbor, and America's presence in the Pacific War boosted Australian spirits and engendered a continuing loyalty.

After the war ended, Australia and the United States signed a defense treaty that has seen Australian armed forces fight alongside Americans in every conflict since, including Iraq and Afghanistan. This year marks the 60th anniversary of that defense treaty -- called ANZUS -- and it's still evolving.

The joint U.S.-Australian announcement on the rotation of Marines through northern Australia signals Australia's commitment to keep supporting the foreign policy aims of its closest ally. For the United States, it marks a great shift in focus -- a pivot away from two long-running and catastrophic wars in the Middle East and toward a heightened trade and security focus in the Pacific.

In words intended to echo throughout the region, Obama told Parliament that the United States was a Pacific power "here to stay." Already, the decision to place troops in Australia has drawn objections from China and Australia's close neighbor, Indonesia.

In Australia, an Obama speech still packs the kind of punch it did in the United States in 2008. It's as if he were still seen in the haze of can-do hype that has worn off in the cities of America. From an American point of view, that's fortunate, because U.S. ambitions to reemerge as a Pacific powerhouse can only be achieved with the help of strategically located allies like Australia.

President Obama's charm wowed the Australian public in the space of 48 hours. But Australia will have to play a delicate balancing game if it's to support the U.S. agenda and maintain good relations with the major powers that surround it. And that game is just beginning.