Barack Obama is on his first trip abroad as the presumptive Democratic nominee for the White House. After a tour of the Middle East, he is expected in Berlin, Paris and London, where his fans are waiting.
In this kind of trip, it's the photo that counts. Barack Obama first planned to pose for his keynote speech on transatlantic relations in Berlinunder the Brandenburg Gate – the very place from where John F. Kennedy called for reconciliation between Eastern and Western Berlin on June 26, 1963.
Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech solidified the friendship between Germany and the young American president. Obama's PR crew, however, decided that the image would be going too far.
Obama's trip to Berlin, Paris and London is more than a simple courtesy visit and it is poised to attract much attention.
On the US side, many are waiting to see if he proves worthy of the job. His challenge is to establish good relations with world leaders without overdoing it. The Republicans will of course be watching his every step, hoping for a faux-pas.
On the European side, the rampant "Obamania" has somewhat puzzled the political establishment –across the spectrum. Obama support committees have mushroomed all over the European. According to American political writer Marc Ambinder, Europe's press looks like it is about to lose its critical mind and to become plain besotted.
"I have to remind you that the French do not elect the president of the United States", joked Republicans Abroad president for France and Europe George Yates in an interview with FRANCE 24.
According to opinion polls, if Europeans were to elect the president of the United States today, Obama would be certain to win. A survey by ICM published by the Guardian newspaper on July 14 showed that 53% of the British felt Obama would be a good president, while only 11% felt the same about John McCain and 36% did not express an opinion.
Yet the European fascination for Barack Obama is not all manna from heaven for the Democratic candidate. His team would be well advised to tone down exuberant displays of enthusiasm if they want to escape the John Kerry syndrome. The 2004 Democratic candidate was extremely popular in Europe but lost the contest in America.
"Obama is walking on thin ice", Michael Cox, a British researcher with Chatham House told FRANCE 24. "Europe is of course the US's main economic and strategic partner. But to be loved by the Americans, a White House candidate should not be giving the impression that he is taking advice from the Europeans. American voters are not very open to what foreigners think."
Obama does not seem to be paying too much attention to that type of warning. Asked by CNN about the possibility that his popularity in Europe may become a source of problems for him, he said on July 13: "I think the American people are ready for a president who is not alienating the world. And if that president is liked a little bit, well, that's just a bonus."
Catching a little bit of that Obama aura
According to Michael Cox, Barack Obama has little chance of reaching his two main goals: that he gain more votes and convince reluctant delegates to vote for him. However, he might be able to score political points in Europe. "It’s as important for Barack Obama to appear in company of the leaders of European allies and project an image of a credible international actor, as it is for Europeans to pose next to the Democratic candidate,” says Cox. “Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel have done the math: Obama stands a good chance of being elected at the end of the year. His popularity is such that the European leaders who have hit a low point in polls are hoping some of his aura will rub off onto them!”
However, Josef Joffe warns in an editorial of the German magazine Die Zeit on June 6 that “Obama’s idealism is a nice backdrop for Europeans.” In other words, only Europeans are fooled by it. And according to Republican George Yates, Europeans are wrong if they think Obama is the opposite of George Bush. “US foreign policy will not fundamentally change according to the political label of the elected president. A lot of Europeans will be disappointed by Obama,” predicts Yates. “Obama is gradually waking up to the reality of the situation. By the end of the campaign, he might be more protectionist and favourable to the war in Iraq than McCain.” Words, though, which still need to be proven.
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