Obama packs star power on European tour
Barack Obama is once again driving crowds wild in Ireland and Britain as he makes his way to the upcoming G8 meeting in France, demonstrating he still wields enormous support in Europe.
In the tiny Irish village of Moneygall, where President Barack Obama can trace some of his ancestry and recently stopped to raise a pint of Guinness with a distant cousin, crowds waved American flags and placards reading “Welcome Home”. Just as in Dublin earlier that day, the US president was treated to a hero’s welcome in Moneygall as he kicked off a four-nation European tour that culminates with the G8 summit in France on May 26-27. This jovial reception has set the tone for the rest of Obama’s visit, which will also include a visit to Poland, as Europeans offer him the unreserved applause they are now denying many of their own leaders.
Obama appeared as comfortable sipping a pint of beer in Ireland’s rural heartland as he usually does hosting White House galas in Washington. He was unfazed by the royal reception and the 41-gun salute given in his honour at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday. According to royal watchers, Queen Elizabeth II has taken a liking to the Obamas ever since meeting the couple during their 2009 visit to London. And on Thursday, Obama became the first US president to address both houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall in London.
On Obama’s upcoming visit to France, his second as president, he will join the leaders of the world’s biggest economies and thus will be stripped of the exclusive media attention he’s attracted in Ireland and Britain. Nevertheless, the French will want to witness Obama’s latest Normandy landing - and the press will likely scramble to meet that demand, as it has before.
As the presumptive Democratic Party candidate and during the early days of his term, Obama won legions of fans across Europe. In July 2008, the then-Senator attracted an estimated crowd of 200,000 people to Berlin’s Tiergarten Park. Nine months later, as president, Obama told a 20,000-strong crowd in Prague that a nuclear-free world was possible. Other notable visits to Europe have included France in June 2009, for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day allied landings in Normandy, and Norway in October 2009 to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
According to Divina Frau-Meigs, a media sociologist at Paris 3 University, Obama’s initial appeal was directly linked to Europeans’ strong dislike of former president George W. Bush. “Obama was seen as someone with grassroots support, not tied to big business-like Bush. [Obama] was seen as someone who would withdraw troops from Iraq and close Guantanamo,” Frau-Meigs explained, adding that many Europeans are disappointed that those expectations have gone unmet under Obama.
During his first trip to France two years ago, Obama was greeted ceremoniously by one of his unabashed fans: President Nicolas Sarkozy. According to Christine Rolland, chair of the Normandy chapter of Democrats Abroad, French people were “absolutely thrilled” to see Obama then. “France and the US share a long love-hate relationship. I have lived through lots of phases of this. The Obama administration definitely marks a high point,” said Rolland, a 26-year resident of France.
For the French press, Obama’s visit and the ceremony marked a turning point in Franco-American relations, which had been strained over Paris’ unwillingness to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With Obama, the French were once again willing to embrace America and forget the whole “freedom fries” incident.
While admitting that the US president remains popular in France, Frau-Meigs says there are signs that the initial French enthusiasm exhibited in the spring of 2009 has faded. She points to the popular TV show “Les Guignols de l’Info”, a political satire that uses puppets, which once portrayed Obama as being distinctly different from his predecessor at the White House. That image has gradually given way to that of an overconfident and often bullying Guignol character - not unlike the way that former president Bush was portrayed on the show, according to Frau-Meigs.
Writing in the left-leaning British daily The Guardian on the eve of Obama’s European tour, journalist Gay Younge agreed that Obama’s record on issues that are important to Europeans, such as closing Guantanamo and reducing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is uninspiring. But for Younge, Obama’s pop-star popularity in Europe “has barely changed since his emergence as a credible presidential candidate.” Europeans are simply willing to overlook Obama’s faults and broken promises, the British journalist argued.
Analysts expect the tour to be beneficial to Obama, who is already in campaign mode for his 2012 re-election bid. Images of crazed Europeans waving American flags and British ministers laughing at the end of Obama’s every sentence will certainly make their way back across the Atlantic.
Widespread Obamania in Europe stands in contrast with the treatment reserved for the continent’s own leaders of late. As the British and French governments slash public jobs and reduce budgets, Prime Minister David Cameron and President Sarkozy have seen their approval ratings sink. While he retains the approval of a majority of Poles, President Bronisław Komorowski has also seen his support slip, according to an April survey by polling agency CBOS.
Obama may not be able boost the collective image of his European counterparts with his mere presence, but he can lend them a favourable stage from which to address voters.