When Barack Obama arrives in Europe this week, the senator will be greeted as a president-elect. His election in November is regarded as a mere formality — and in Europe it would be one. Obama’s margin of victory over John McCain in opinion polls is 51 percent in France, 49 percent in Germany, and 30 percent in Britain. What some skeptical European governments call “Obamania” is sweeping the continent.
Two factors largely explain this opinion tsunami: race and George W. Bush.
Taking their cue from America’s Obamaniacs, Europeans see the Illinois senator as a healer bringing absolution for the Republic’s original sin of racism. He shall overcome. But that blinding confidence is as far as the argument goes. How Obama will overcome is largely left unstated. Obama’s election, achieved in part by white votes, would itself mark a defeat for what remains of anti-black racism. But once an attempt is made to take the argument further, doubts set in.
If Obama follows the sort of race-conscious policies he has faithfully supported for the last quarter century — racial preferences and set-asides, now made more burdensome and complex by immigration — then racial divisions will continue and perhaps sharpen. If he is true to the “post-racial” rhetoric of his campaign, however, and seeks healing indirectly by helping the poor lift themselves out of poverty, then he would have better chances of long-term success. Short-term, though, he would invite noisy denunciations of betrayal from the Jacksons and Sharptons of this world.
In either event, healing would be postponed — and after a while, the failure of America to recreate itself as a post-racial utopia of universal goodwill would be held up as evidence of an unshakable racism. Disappointment on two continents is inherent in the current enthusiasm.
George W. Bush presents Obama with an even more tangled problem. Europeans regard Bush, his America, and his foreign policy as little short of diabolical. They see Obama as the Fifth Cavalry riding in to save them from such dangerous folly. But while they were demonstrating against “Bushitler,” his foreign policy changed sharply on a range of issues — North Korea, Iran, European defense — in a “European” direction. Since the primaries ended and the Iraq surge succeeded, moreover, Obama has hedged his position on Iraq withdrawal (among other things). And Sen. McCain was already closer than President Bush to the European allies on most foreign-policy issues, including climate change.
So, as European governments (but not European peoples) see it, Obama differs only modestly with both McCain and Bush on the foreign-policy matters about which they care most. What distinguishes him is his lack of experience.
Obama is uneasily aware of this. He is also usually too shrewd to flatter European prejudices at the cost (paid by Sen. John Kerry) of seeming either anti-American or nationally ambivalent. He is likely therefore to play it safe in three ways. To the Europeans he will offer a strong and eloquent defense of the Atlantic alliance. To the Americans watching on television, he will stress that Europe must play a stronger part in NATO and in such alliance ventures as Afghanistan both by contributing more troops and resources and by actually fighting the enemy. And to both sides, he will avoid taking on contentious issues: Would he stand up to the Russians, for instance, and install missile defenses in central Europe?
Given the strong will of most Europeans to believe in the senator, this will be enough to enthuse the crowds he will undoubtedly attract. His trip is all but guaranteed to be a smash hit. It will not entirely quiet the anxiety of European governments fearing that, as in the first few years of Clinton, an Obama administration would take a year or two to establish a clear and decisive policy on key alliance issues. And its effect on the election — what is the real significance of the European trip? That will depend on whether American voters are more impressed by what will undoubtedly be Obama’s display of charisma than repelled by the hubristic assumption of the media coverage that the election is a foregone conclusion.