Three months after wildly enthusiastic crowds greeted Barack Obama on his whirlwind visit to England, Germany and France, the Democratic presidential candidate remains the overwhelming favorite among Europeans who crave new leadership in their America ally.
A worldwide poll published last week by the Canadian newspaper La Presse asked citizens in eight countries, including five in Europe, who they would choose in November’s U.S. presidential contest if they could vote. Obama trounced Republican John McCain, polling 83 percent in Switzerland and sailing to over 60 percent support in France, Great Britain and Belgium.
“He is an image of America the world can understand,” said Nicholas Dungan, president of the New York-based French-American Foundation, which aims to strengthen ties between the close, if occasionally testy allies. “He is about hope, he is a global character, he is young and charismatic, and the fact is, he has emphasized that he wants to work with others.”
While the La Presse poll confirmed “a sound denunciation of the George W. Bush presidency and of American policies,” the newspaper reported, it also found widespread admiration for Obama, who many Europeans view as a symbol of the American dream.
But some political analysts said they feared Europeans were so awed by the Obama package — young, black, eloquent, and worldly — that they were ignoring the fine print.
“Barack Obama may be a citizen of the world, but he would be president of the United States,” Dungan warned.
While an Obama presidency “would be better for U.S.-Europe relations in general,” according to Samuel Wells, director of West European Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, “that doesn’t mean Europeans would approve a number of things he would do.” Wells cited in particular Russia, where many Europeans would favor a softer line that Obama likely would take, and China, where Europeans are chiefly concerned about trade and have little interest in security issues.
Other analysts mentioned Obama’s frequent criticism of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico as a sign that the democratic candidate could have a protectionist streak that would not bode well for U.S.-European relations.
During the Democratic primaries, in fact, then-European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson blasted the anti-NAFTA bent of Obama and his chief opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
“It is irresponsible to be pretending to people you can erect new protection, new tariff barriers around your economy in this 21st century global age, and still succeed in sustaining people's living standards and jobs,” Mandelson said. “It is a mirage, and they know it.”
Obama also tipped his protectionist hand after the Pentagon awarded a $40 billion defense contract to the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, the parent company of Airbus, instead of giving it to U.S.-based aerospace giant Boeing.
"I would think that we would want to prioritize U.S. companies that are employing U.S. workers," Obama said when the EADS decision was announced. “When we you’ve got such an enormous contract for such a vital piece of our U.S. military arsenal, it strikes me that we should have identified a U.S. company that could do it."
Despite his protectionist leanings, Europeans “would take the overall package of an Obama presidency, because what he offers outweighs his possible protectionism, especially since there is protectionism in both parties,” said Ronald Asmus, executive director of the Brussels branch of the German Marshall Fund.
Europeans leaders, many of whom opposed the U.S. military invasion of Iraq but generally supported the offensive in Afghanistan, also largely approve of Obama’s stance to quickly withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, analysts said. But they may not necessarily respond to his call for more European help in Afghanistan, where NATO forces are a key element in fighting the Taliban, combating the drug trade and rebuilding the country.
“America cannot do this alone,” Obama declared in a speech during his trip to Germany. “The Afghan people need our troops and your troops.”
But according to Asmus, “Europeans are not eager to invest money or troops in Afghanistan, because there is no strategy that they feel can succeed. ... The question is, could Obama reframe the issue and come up with a strategy that Europeans think can succeed?”
In the end, the key quality that Obama offers — which will permit many Europeans to overlook their policy disagreements — is new American leadership, Asmus and Dugan said. And while McCain also would fulfill the longing for “anybody but Bush,” the GOP candidate has not touched European hearts to the degree Obama has.
“One believes in exceptionalism and the other one believes in America as an example,” said Dungan, recalling how McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, described his view of America during the vice presidential debate as “a nation of exceptionalism” and “a beacon of hope.”
Moreover, there is no monolithic European mindset, and the interests of European Union countries differ greatly. France, Italy, and Great Britain, for instance, would probably welcome a “managed trade” relationship with the United State, while Germany, a big exporter, would be more reluctant. At the same time, the so-called “new” European states in the east, many of which were Soviet satellites, generally favor a much tougher line against Russia than the “older” European states in the western part of the Union.
But one thing Europeans generally agree on is that they do not want the Bush administration to continue — something many fear could happen if McCain is elected on Nov. 4.
“They want change, and Obama is a hope for change,” said Wells. “So they are certainly hopeful, even though if Obama gets elected, they might feel a little remorse in the end.”