Presidential candidates traditionally visit foreign parts in order to impress on voters back home that they have a sure grasp of international affairs. Barack Obama’s European expedition, however, is more of a premature celebration: part royal progress, part rock and roll tour. It will give him a chance to thank Europeans in advance for their support if he becomes president, while reassuring them that he has taken their views on board.
There is little doubt that Europeans would overwhelmingly vote for Obama if given the chance. The Guardian reported last week that the British, who turned on Tony Blair after he tied himself to President Bush’s mast and who generally disapprove of the Iraq War, prefer Obama over John McCain by 53 percent to 11. (The remaining 36 percent expressed no opinion.) In Germany, according to the Telegraph, the figures are even more stark, with Obama attracting 67 percent support to McCain’s 6.
Part of Obama’s popularity has to do with Europe’s intense antipathy toward Bush. The president has made little effort to woo the Europeans over the last seven years, and he studiously ignored their leaders’ efforts, through the United Nations, to postpone the invasion of Iraq. Unlike his father, he was unable to assemble a grand coalition of Western allies, and he has paid a price for his independence. As so often happens in politics, the unpopularity of an incumbent heightens regard for his likely successor. (When Kenneth Clarke, a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, was asked who would succeed the Iron Lady if a bus were inadvertently to run her over, he responded, “Why, the bus driver, of course.”) Obama’s popularity largely rests on his not being Bush.
But Obama is treading a dangerous path. It would be rash to take a November victory for granted; if he has learned nothing else from his slim victory over Hillary Clinton, he should have learned that nothing is inevitable. He would not be the first front-runner to fall victim to hubris. Rather than revel in the adulation of adoring crowds, he would do better to confirm to skeptical American voters that he will not value the well-being of foreigners ahead of the interests of Americans. Only by stressing that as president he would, like his predecessors, put America first—thereby disillusioning the Europeans—will he be able to convince voters at home that he has his priorities right.
But it seems the Europeans are in no mood to be distracted from their Obamamania. The continent is considerably to the left of America, and its people are generally more liberal on such matters as abortion, the death penalty, and gun control. On all three issues, Obama has shown himself prepared to shift to more conservative positions in order to be more electable. If the Europeans have noticed this pragmatic change of tack, they have put it out of their minds. Further, Obama’s early and long-standing opposition to the Iraq War has made him a standard bearer for an anti-Americanism that is now rife throughout the European Union. Many Europeans see his unusual family background and his mixed ethnicity as confirmation of their belief that he is not quite wholly American—that he is even, perhaps, un-American.
Much has been made about the scale of the American press circus accompanying Obama, and it is generally thought that pictures of him acknowledging the crowds’ good wishes will boost his popularity at home. But if the coverage even hints at the un-American spirit in which he is being greeted as a prophet and a hero, his triumphant tour of European capitals will surely backfire.