Obama rules roost in Europe
In his book, Audacity of Hope, United States President Barack Obama described himself as a Rorschach test—the experiment in which people are shown a series of ink blots and asked to identify what they see in them.
Each response, in its own way, is thought to reveal the patient’s obsessions and anxieties.
So it is with Obama. In the past week he has been disparaged as the “most successful food-stamp president in history” by US conservative Newt Gingrich and as a spineless “black mascot” of Wall Street by the prominent black academic Cornel West.
“I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” he said. “I am bound to disappoint some if not all of them.”
But what is really puzzling is not the disappointment, but his supporters’ enduring devotion in the face of them. This has long been true of black voters in the US, who somehow manage to feel more optimistic about the country than ever, even as unemployment, poverty and foreclosure have risen to rates far higher than they were under George Bush and the racial gap grows. Black Americans suffer from 16% unemployment, but continue to give him 80% approval.
The same apparent contradictions underpin European attitudes towards Obama, which have barely changed since his emergence as a credible presidential candidate. A Pew research poll published in July 2008, before the elections, revealed that Obama was more popular in Europe than on any other continent, including North America.
In Germany, France, Spain and Britain more than 70% said they trusted him “to do the right thing in world affairs” and more than half believed a new president would change US foreign policy for the better. Although just 19% of Europeans interviewed in a German Marshall Fund survey in 2008 supported Bush’s handling of international affairs, 77% approved of Obama’s foreign policy a year later.
In September 2009 Craig Kennedy, the fund’s president, argued: “I suspect that, as real political decisions have to be made, we will see Obama euphoria fade as the Europeans begin to see him more as an American and less like themselves.” But that hasn’t happened. Three years later, he leaves home—where, even after Osama bin Laden’s assassination, approval ratings hover at about 50%—and lands on a continent where more than 70% think he’s doing a good job.
Yet much of what Europeans loathed about the Bush era remains intact even as Obama prepares to run for a second term. Guantanamo is still open, rendition continues, there are more troops in Afghanistan and there are still troops in Iraq.
True, his statement on the Middle East last Friday shifts US policy closer to Europe’s than it has been for more than a decade. But that wouldn’t be the first time he’s delivered an impressive speech and then failed to follow through.
Moreover, Europe is implicated in many areas where US foreign policy has stalled. Part of the problem with Guantanamo is that European governments refused to take many prisoners. Some applauded The US’s intensification of the Afghan war even as they planned unilaterally to draw down their own troops.
Obama’s principal defence abroad, as it is at home, is that things were bad when he arrived and would be worse if he went. This is true. But it falls far short of the inspiring rhetoric that accompanied his rise to power. Not so much “Yes we can” as “Could be worse”.
European political elites have long been frustrated. “I see this [European tour] as an opportunity to reset the European relationship,” Heather Conley, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Post. “European leaders have really been struggling with where they fit. They had enormous expectations of this president, but they’re now wondering: ‘Is it that different after all?’”
But this has yet to filter down in any discernible way. So when he has delivered so little, why do Europeans love him so much? Many of the original reasons stand. He still isn’t George Bush, for example.
One reason he is so popular in Europe is that he has emerged at a time when European leadership is in such a parlous state. Less than a third of the Italians and French, respectively, approve of Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy, only half the Germans find Angela Merkel credible. David Cameron does not fare much better.
Smart, charismatic, telegenic and unencumbered by sleaze, Obama still, by comparison, represents the possibility of a popular form of electoral politics led by intelligent and public-spirited citizens as opposed to opportunists, egomaniacs and sleazemongers. It’s as though his proven ability to articulate the source and scope of problems has enabled some people to look past his inability to provide solutions.
Europe’s Obamaphilia has always been as much a reflection of its weaknesses as his strengths. Like royalists in search of a benevolent monarch, they have sought not to leverage their own power, but to trust in someone else’s.
And those weaknesses have grown. In the continuing fallout from the financial crisis, the continent is struggling to hold itself together. Greece and Ireland are on the brink of default, Portugal is up for a bailout and Spain is in revolt. The fate of the euro is openly questioned.
The Arab spring laid bare both the US’s and Europe’s waning influence on the world, and demands to retain the chairmanship of the International Monetary Fund smack of anachronistic entitlement against the rising power of more dynamic developing economies. Europeans’ attitude towards Obama tells us more about Europe than it does about the US president. And what it says about both is not particularly impressive.—