Falling Out of Love With Obama

A supporter of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., holds a poster meaning \'Obama for Chancellor\' prior to Obama\'s speech at the victory column in Berlin Thursday, July 24, 2008. (AP Photo/Miguel Villagran)Josef Joffe pithily captures a point I’ve made repeatedly:

In Berlin, hundreds of thousands will cheer a projection rather than a flesh-and-blood Obama on Thursday. After Inauguration Day, alas, Europe and the world will not face a Dreamworks president, but the leader of a superpower. Whether McCain or Obama, the 44th president will speak more nicely than did W. in his first term. He will also pay more attention to the “decent opinions of mankind.” But he will still preside over the world’s largest military, economic, and cultural power.

This vast power differential is what Germans and Europeans don’t quite fathom in their infatuation with Obama. Their problem was not Mr. Bush, but Mr. Big–America as Behemoth Among the Nations, unwilling to succumb to the dictates of goodness that animate post-heroic, post-imperial, and post-sovereign Europe.

That’s exactly right.  Nor is it Euro-bashing.  I’m a professional transatlanticist these days maintained, even in the most fractious days of the fight over the decision to go to war in Iraq, that the United States and Western Europe had far, far more in common than divided us. But the fact remains is that our geostrategic interests don’t always align and we’ve got the means and will to pursue goals regardless of whether they’re with us.  That, in turn, naturally frustrates them.

Beyond that central point, highlighted and brought to my attention by Patrick Appel, Joffe points out that Obama’s not the pliant, meek fellow that the Germans imagine and are feting with rock star fervor.

Obamania is not about politics, but about desire, dreams, and projections. Obama is not so much a candidate as a canvas, a vast surface onto which Europeans (and half of the U.S. electorate) can paint their fondest fantasies. There hasn’t been anything like it in Western politics since … since … Jack (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) Kennedy, the president Barack Obama so self-consciously mimics, down to the tilt of his head and the inflection of his voice.

This isn’t the “empty suit meme” that Kevin Drum decries but rather a recognition that, while Obma may well be a master politician, he’s still a politician.  And an American one at that.

There are two problems buried in this fantasy. One, Barack Obama is possessed of a pliable identity that oscillates between Barry and Barack, between White and Black, between the Harvard Law Review and the Chicago slums, between a leftish voting record in the Senate and a right-of-center message on the stump. He is neither saint nor softie, but the most consummate power politician to come out of Chicago since Richard Daley the Elder. Following classical electoral ritual in the U.S., Obama has been moving steadily to the right, be it on the death penalty, gun control, or Iraq. Europeans haven’t quite processed his pilgrimage to the center, and if they have, they seem not to care.

A President Obama would almost surely remain more popular in Europe than President Bush. Then again, that’s a low bar.  Given the degree over overseas action the next American president will doubtless be involved with — and the tension this will likely engender — it’s unlikely, though, that he’d be as popular there as Bill Clinton.

AP Photo/Miguel Villagran

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Europe, Politics 101, US Politics, World Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    A President Obama would almost surely remain more popular in Europe than President Bush. Then again, that’s a low bar.

    After dealing with the French-looking John Kerry, why are we even remotely concernd about how popular a particular president is in Europe? That entire discussion if nothing else, showed us our interests are not bettered by their approval.. in fact the reverse tends to be true.

    On the other hand, given the shift to the right of many Europian governments, inclduing the French, and the Germans, and the UK, now, one wonders if it’s not just a particular segment of the Euro population that we’re supposed to be popular with… a segment that is no longer in power, there.

  2. James Joyner says:

    he shift to the right of many Europian governments, inclduing the French, and the Germans, and the UK

    Relative terms, though, Bit. The Democrats and Republicans would easily fit into the definiton of “right” in any of the major Western European “conservative” parties.

  3. Mike P says:

    Good God people…the man hasn’t even won yet (he could, in fact, lose!), but let’s go ahead and assume that he won’t maintain his popularity because he’ll be the American president!

    And in fact, I think Joffe get this almost exactly wrong…a lot of this DOES have to do directly with Bush and his mentality. It’s certainly true that some people are going to resent the biggest kid on the block, even if he’s a nice guy because they know they might not be able to impose their will on him by force and, even then, he might just choose to disregard them. However, if that big kid uses his massive power for good and uses it in a humble manner, in a manner that truly seeks equitable solutions for all, then you can see a different dynamic. Bush’s problem (and the problem with American foreign policy since he’s been in office) is that is has gone from being muscular to mildly belligerent and filled through with a sense of its own righteousness (“with us or against us”, etc). A strong America will always have enemies, but we can also weaken them by not being afraid to listen to and work with other countries.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Their problem was not Mr. Bush,

    We could have a pretty good debate about that…

  5. ck says:

    Their problem was not Mr. Bush, but Mr. Big—America as Behemoth Among the Nations

    If that were true, why was Clinton so popular in Europe, as you say?

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    It is not possible to have a good debate if anjin is involved. I really do not think I care what Europe thinks of our President. If it were not for America, they would all be speaking German or Russian. I suspect we will have to bail them out again when the Muslims try to take over. Europe did not have a problem with G.W. Bush, Saddam had a problem with Bush. Europe was doing business with Saddam. The really didn’t care one whit about Kuwait when Saddam invaded. They didn’t care that Saddam would have use things he purchased, like supergun parts, to attack Israel. They did not care Saddam was bribing the UN, the President of France and others with money he gain from the oil for food program. Europeans really car about shorter work weeks and the next crop of Beaujolais will come to market. The Europeans who longed for freedom are here. Obama drew a large crowd in Berlin today. Two very popular German Rock bands played before he spoke. Same as Portland, music and bullshit.

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    It is not possible to have a good debate if anjin is involved. I really do not think I care what Europe thinks of our President. If it were not for America, they would all be speaking German or Russian. I suspect we will have to bail them out again when the Muslims try to take over. Europe did not have a problem with G.W. Bush, Saddam had a problem with Bush. Europe was doing business with Saddam. The really didn’t care one whit about Kuwait when Saddam invaded. They didn’t care that Saddam would have use things he purchased, like supergun parts, to attack Israel. They did not care Saddam was bribing the UN, the President of France and others with money he gain from the oil for food program. Europeans really car about shorter work weeks and the next crop of Beaujolais will come to market. The Europeans who longed for freedom are here. Obama drew a large crowd in Berlin today. Two very popular German Rock bands played before he spoke. Same as Portland, music and bullshit.

  8. andrew says:

    On a superficial level Obama as President would improve our relations with Europe. The Democrats and media, who bash the country and whip up anti-Americanism when a Republican is President, would stop when one of their own is in the White House. But, nothing would fundamentally change. Germany is not going to get serious about building up their military and sending their troops from northern Afghanistan into combat areas no matter who is President.

  9. James Joyner says:

    If that were true, why was Clinton so popular in Europe, as you say?

    Because America was drawing down its military, using the military for kumbayah missions, and being begged to act by the Europeans (in the Balkans and Rwanda) rather than vice-versa.

  10. Derrick says:

    Because America was drawing down its military, using the military for kumbayah missions, and being begged to act by the Europeans (in the Balkans and Rwanda) rather than vice-versa.

    I think your ignoring the goodwill that still existed for us even after the invasion of Afghanistan. Even a President McCain after 2000 (unless he was stilling seeking VICTORY around the world) would most likely have better relations with Europe, just by not telling people your either with us or against us while torturing some of those against us. Relations are never going to be perfect, hell there are days that loving spouses want to kill each other, but Bush has fostered this un-trustworthy, belligerent relationship and it doesn’t have to be repeated.

  11. anjin-san says:

    Because America was drawing down its military

    This was initiated by GHW Bush, a fact I suspect you well know…

  12. Not that it made Europe love him any more for it…

  13. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Right anagram, but not to the level Willy Jeff left the country. I must ask what is it about Afghanistan Obama thinks is so important to al Qaeda that Obama would have pulled combat troops out of Iraq to fight who in Afghanistan? If Obama thinks oil rich Iraq, in the middle of the Middle East, the proposed home of the Babylon caliphate is as important to al Qaeda as opposed to poppy rich but otherwise barren Afghanistan, just maybe he is not as smart nor is his judgment as sound as you Anjin tend to think.

  14. Al Bee says:

    I spent four years in Europe as part of the NATO forces. When the sirens went off Heinz rolled over and went back to sleep. I donned the combat gear and went to defend Germany and Europe. There are not many whose opinions I value. A hard talking president and not a pussy footer tiptoeing around the issue and can’t say no. If we draw down forces we should most certainly withdraw the troops from Europe. All we are doing is providing subsidies to Europeans.

  15. Beldar says:

    Mike P wrote, apparently with a straight face:

    However, if that big kid uses his massive power for good and uses it in a humble manner, in a manner that truly seeks equitable solutions for all, then you can see a different dynamic.

    Of course, Dubya overturned the Taliban and Saddam Hussein to promote evil. Those were good, humble, enlightened regimes that truly sought equitable solutions for all. (Unless you were a non-Muslim. Or a Shi’ite Muslim, for that matter. Or a woman. Or a westerner. Or a fan of democracy, liberty, and the rule of law. Or you smoked cigarettes. Or you looked at them cross-wise in just the particular manner that justified them in cutting your head off.)

    As for Obama: His call on NATO allies to “do more in Afghanistan” is empty rhetoric, bereft of either carrots or sticks. It’s less impressive than Michelle promising that Barack Obama won’t let us Americans sink back into our easy lives, will demand more of us, etc. He’ll use it domestically to back up a claim that he can be an effective world leader — even though he’s ignorant on such basics of 20th Century history as the success or failure, from an American point of view, of Kennedy’s 1961 Vienna summit with Khrushchev, which actually led the world closer to nuclear annihilation than any other act of any American president. One could make a judgment of Barack Obama’s fitness to be president solely by comparing his efforts to tour Europe as a rock star to his efforts to run the senatorial subcommittee on Europe that he chairs (but has never yet convened).

  16. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Beldar, I think you nailed it. Anjin, do you disagree?

  17. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Beldar, I think you nailed it. Anjin, do you disagree?

  18. sam says:

    Jack Kennedy, the president Barack Obama so self-consciously mimics, down to the tilt of his head and the inflection of his voice.

    I’ve come to the view that folks have the wrong Kennedy here. Barack reminds me more of Bobby every day.

  19. Aiken Blue says:

    Barack Obama is iconic, he does not need to mimic anybody. It almost seems like people are so envious of how he carries himself and his charisma that they would rather think he’s a copy of somebody else than himself. He is himself, that is why the world is gripped by Obamamania. Vote for Obama! Visit WHYOBAMA08.org!!

  20. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Aiken, only those who need to get a grip are in the grip of Obamamainia. What it shows is you have neither the depth of knowledge nor the ability to grasp who exactly Barrack Hussein Obama is. Look at what he has accomplished in his past (nothing). He is an abandoned child overcompensating for his losses. His father abandoned him and his mother abandoned him. If Rowe V Wade had been law back then, we would not be dealing with this issue. The only thing Obama is good at is reading a teleprompter. That’s it and that’s all.

  21. anjin-san says:

    Anjin, do you disagree?

    Not really too interested in what you boys are ranting about…

    Interesting though that you said a good debate is not possible when I am involved yet you keep soliciting my opinion.

  22. Bithead says:

    Interesting though that you said a good debate is not possible when I am involved yet you keep soliciting my opinion.

    Perhaps they’re just curious how big a brick they have to use to get you to blink.

  23. Fence says:

    Their problem was not Mr. Bush, but Mr. Big—America as Behemoth Among the Nations

    You’re thinking of al Qaeda. The Europeans mostly just hate Bush.

    And I’m frankly not feeling so superpower anymore when I press my face to the window of a restaurant in London wishing it wouldn’t cost me a day’s wages just to go inside and have an appetizer. The massive military thing is so last-century for determining the real superpower status of actual people.

  24. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    You know Obama is about to tell a lie when he says “I have always said”. If you think I am or ever have solicited your opinion, you are as deluded as your hero. Anjin, I have read the BS you write for some time now. You were wrong about Kerry as you will be wrong about Obama. Go figure. As a pilot (Anjin) you cannot seem to find your own way.

  25. Bithead says:

    Relative terms, though, Bit. The Democrats and Republicans would easily fit into the definiton of “right” in any of the major Western European “conservative” parties.

    Oh, no question, and it was not my intent to suggest otherwise. Still, as I’ve pointed out in other threads today, the direction of travel is noteworthy.

  26. anjin-san says:

    You were wrong about Kerry as you will be wrong about Obama

    Ummm…..

    I was working for Howard Dean when he was still Governor of Vermont. I never cared for Kerry, to me he was a clothespin vote.

    Can’t you guys get anything right? Or have you just been making crap up for so long you don’t know the difference?

  27. Hal says:

    I must say that reading these comment threads on OTB is quite enlightening, purely from a sociological POV. Being a moderate conservative site, James and his fellow bloggers don’t really provide a lot of red meat, rather they just seem to enjoy setting up a cock fight and watching the results – as long as it doesn’t get too bloody and the cops don’t bust the joint up. This allows for some rather interesting mixing up of the views, which is quite unusual on the ‘tubes.

    One of these days I’d love to have an intern crunch through the archive of comments just to do a simple content analysis and correlation to the political identity of the commenter. I’m sure there’s some incredible papers waiting to be written about the results of even a simple analysis. Correlating them to the time line of the progress of the Iraqi war and other events would also prove entertaining.

    Ah, time….

  28. Bithead says:

    So, the answer to the question, as always is “Get a bigger brick”.

  29. anjin-san says:

    Get a bigger brick”.

    Bigger than the one between your ears?