For the past 100 years or so the election of a new American President has been more than just a local event. But the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th president has taken on a special importance. It is as closely followed abroad as it is in the U.S.
Obama the man is extraordinary enough, but Obama the symbol, perhaps even more so. Few leaders have incarnated both the world’s hopes and the world’s fears as he does – FDR, Churchill, Kennedy, Martin Luther King – at least for black Americans.
In Africa he is living proof that a non-white person can rise to the heights, and he gives a new generation hope that the continent’s endless procession of tyrants, massacres, wars and poverty is not inevitable.
In Asia he is the Confucian figure of calm authority, who can lead the world out of its economic mess, created in large part by his feckless predecessor.
To Latin America he offers the hope of reasoned dialogue instead of self-serving diatribes and economic bullying.
He is also a symbol of hope in Europe, but the reasons and the feelings are more complex. George W. Bush never appealed to Europeans, a number of whom still believe that he stole the 2000 election from Al Gore. The high-handed manner of his administration convinced most Europeans that he neither knew about, nor cared for, the interests of other nations.
After Sept. 11, he is seen as having squandered the world’s good will by launching an ill-coordinated ‘war on terror.’ The build up and conduct of the Iraq war is viewed as needless aggression, built on lies. The final straw is the current economic meltdown, which Europe perceives, with some justification, as the result of the Bush administration’s devotion to unfettered capitalist economic policy and a failure to understand the global implications of unsupervised financial markets.
Most Europeans view Obama as the antithesis of Bush. He is smart where Bush is dumb; a conciliator, who seeks the advice of others, rather than acting alone; a formidable public speaker, who doesn’t mangle his metaphors; a man from a minority race, who stood up to the establishment, rather than being part of it; a leader with moderate views, who believes government can solve problems rather than create them.
Perhaps above all, Europeans, along with the rest of the world, believe he will reestablish U.S. influence and prestige, which has reached a nadir under Bush. One need look no further than local newspapers and TV coverage to attest how much importance is attached to Obama’s installation in the White House. His story is front-page news. French TV channels have been profiling his life for the past two weeks, culminating in two full hours of live inaugural coverage.
His promise of change and his political ideas are the main focus, as his mixed race background is less important to Europeans than it is to Americans. Although European countries, such as Britain and France, actively participated in the slave trade, there was little actual slavery in Europe itself. The slaves were sent to work on colonial plantations.
However, most European countries now have large and growing populations of immigrant families of non-European origin. They routinely suffer the type of discrimination – economic, social and cultural – that has been the lot of black Americans for over 300 years. For them Obama’s election has taken on a highly charged significance. In France, the UK and elsewhere the question is being asked – Could an Obama be elected to head this country? The answers boil down to “not yet, but maybe someday.” By its very nature Obama’s presidency brings that day closer.
Will he succeed in fulfilling the vast number of hopes that his election has created? Probably not, as he himself has acknowledged. That isn’t really the point, however. As he begins his term of office, Barack Obama embodies the ideal of equality and a better life in a better world that encouraged millions of Europeans to emigrate to America. His father was African, his mother American. He’s an outsider of mixed race. He’s not a scion of wealth and privilege, but a hard working student, who succeeded by dint of his intellect and his passion. For those reasons alone Europe and the world rejoice at his election. The fact that he might actually be the right man for the almost impossible job he’s taken on is an added bonus.
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