Europeans still give Obama the thumbs up

LONDON— After a year in office, President Barack Obama is more popular in Europe than in his own country. Europeans are still infatuated with America's first black president, but they understand the limitations of his office. Americans on the other hand, seem more conflicted about their new president.

That's the impression I got while traveling around Europe and the United States for the past two months. Opinion polls are useful, but there is nothing like chatting with the locals to pick up the nuances and emotions that polls sometimes miss.

In France, I found the national love affair with Obama is undiminished. The entire presidential family has become a staple for glossy magazines. My friends and acquaintances gush over my president. You can bask in the glow of being an American in Paris these days, like you could in the good old days after World War II.

But the French are also realistic. Nicole Bacharan, a French journalist, points out that “an American president has less latitude than a French president. The American system is extremely heavy and is constantly blocked by the balance of powers.” She believes Obama should be given time, and will be judged “by the state of the economy and the evolution of the war in Afghanistan.”

Yves Roucaute, a right wing French philosopher makes a similar point. “Obama promised change, but he can't suddenly abandon Ira[q], dump Israel, or desert Afghanistan.” And though Obama promised to close Guantanamo, he notes, “he has to put the prisoners somewhere.” In short, the French realize that Obama campaigned on a slogan of 'We can,' but in reality, 'He can't.'”

I found the president's popularity equally high in Germany. In fact, a German Marshall Fund poll shows that support for the American president has jumped 88 points since the days of President Bush. The Germans I spoke with seemed to think Obama is the best American president since John F. Kennedy. West Europeans in general overwhelmingly approve of his foreign policy, far more than Americans do.

Germans, however, are less trigger happy than Americans when it comes to the possible use of military force against Iran. The Obama administration talks about leaving that option on the table. Most Germans rule it out. In fact, Germans are so opposed to any kind of warmongering that the president's tough new stance on terrorism (in the wake of the failed suicide bomber attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit) makes them uneasy. Some wonder if he is getting a bit too much like his predecessor.

But even pacifist Germans seem to understand Obama's position. The left-wing newspaper Tageszeitung noted that “Military strength and the willingness to use it are fundamental in the United States. … Whoever saw Obama as a prince of peace has made a mistake. He is a rational military commander.”

The British, in general, do not share the Germans' hang-ups about the use of force, so in London, where I live, you rarely hear any criticism of Obama. They like him so much better than their own politicians, whose frailties and tawdry misdoings are the daily bread of British journalism.

To hear really tough criticism of Obama, you have to go to America.

One of the first things I did when I landed in Miami last month was to visit a bookstore. I was appalled by the anti-Obama vitriol on sale next to the cash register. And in a gated golfing community in southwest Florida, I was told by a seemingly rational retired businessman that Obama was leading the country right into communism. He said it with a straight face. Not all Florida retirees are wacko, but some of his friends clearly agreed with him.

Later, at a conference in Charleston, S.C., where most of the participants seemed to be Democrats, I was struck by the contrast with a meeting of the same organization a year ago. Then, the conference was all abuzz with excitement over the prospect of a new president. This year, the topic of Obama was like a ghost in the room that most people preferred not to mention. Or if they did, they sounded disillusioned.

A bit of perspective is useful. Travel can help you to see things more clearly. The policies of
American adminstrations are shaped by necessity. That was true of the Bush administration. It's true of the present administration. If the Obama foreign policy looks a lot like the Bush foreign policy, that does not surprise Europeans. They still seem to like him more than Americans do.

(Read an overview of how the world views Obama one year later.)