A few thoughts prior to Obama's arrival in Berlin today: People here really do adore him, and I'm trying to figure out why. A poll conducted for the Telegraph (UK) found that among five European countries surveyed, only Italy loves him more. In Germany, 67 percent would vote for Obama, versus a measly six percent for McCain. Obama would take 65% of the vote in France and a whopping 70% in Italy.
Where is all this adulation coming from? I think the main thing is that Germans - and Western Europeans in general - want to believe in America's better angels. Despite all the evidence to the contrary over the past eight years. Most Germans are appalled at everything the Bush Administration has done domestically and abroad. They see how the rule of law is being dismantled. They are dismayed at our barbaric use of the death penalty. They want nothing to do with our use of torture. They rightly resent our unwillingness to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They foresaw what a disaster Iraq would be back in 2002, and they aren't inclined to bail us out now.
And yet - I think most Germans want to see the United States live up to our ostensible ideals. Obama's candidacy seems to be inspiring many of them to set aside their cynicism and believe in America's potential - maybe to a degree that most actual Americans have abandoned. This summer, Berlin is marking 60 years since the airlift. That hasn't been forgotten, nor has the Marshall Plan, nor has Kennedy's solidarity with the city after the Wall was built. People remember the Pershing missile controversy too; Germans don't suffer from historical amnesia like Americans so often seem to do. They remember the good and the bad alike. But at the moment, they seem willing to believe the good can be resurrected.
Part of Obama's appeal is that he's seen as a healing force - someone who might help repair some of the rifts that Bush and his cronies have created. On the one hand, almost any Democrat would do in that role - even an uninspiring, standard-issue candidate in the mold of John Kerry or Michael Dudkakis. On the other hand, Obama is not a cookie-cutter Democrat. People love his youth and charisma; it's at least as appealing here as in the U.S., and maybe more so, since neither his opponents' mudslinging nor his recent craven pandering to the center-right have gotten much media attention in Europe.
And then there's the matter of race. It's possible that the very oldest people might still count blackness as, well, a black mark against him. But my strong sense is that all the post-war generations think it's a positive asset. An AP analysis from earlier this week concurs:
It's difficult to gauge how race is playing out in European attitudes toward Obama, but there is no denying that color is a big ingredient of the Obama magic here. One German newspaper has anointed the candidate "Der Schwarze JFK" - the black JFK.I'm sure this cynical view is true in some instances. And I don't claim to know a representative cross-section of population here; my friends tilt pretty far to the left. Still, I think this is mostly a benign and healthy development - and possibly for some people, a way to warm up to greater ethnic diversity in their own power structures.
But the "feel-good" factor that many pundits have identified among educated white Americans in their support for Obama may at least in part be behind Europeans' eagerness to embrace a black U.S. presidential candidate. All three countries on Obama's European tour have experienced ethnic flare-ups in recent years. And despite large minority populations across the continent, there are only a sprinkling of nonwhite legislators in European parliaments - let alone candidates to be a national leader.
Given Europe's troubled history with its own minorities, Obamamania may be an expedient way for some Europeans to convince themselves they are racially tolerant while brushing aside ethnic tensions at home.
(Source: Matt Moore and Melissa Eddy, writing for the AP)
Berlin has its share of ethnic tensions: many Turkish immigrants are not very assimilated, and this translates into problems in the schools, for instance. But most Berliners are either quite open-minded, or at least they're trying hard. Several years ago, they elected an openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit. While running for office, Wowereit announced: "Ich bin schwul - und das ist auch gut so." "I'm gay - and that's a good thing, too."
This week, the cover of Zitty, a local magazine, features a photo of Obama in a pensive pose with the caption: "Ich bin schwarz - und das ist auch gut so." "I'm black - and that's a good thing, too." While I don't want to overgeneralize from the media coverage, my feeling is that most Berliners share that sentiment.
There are holdouts to Obamamania, though, and not just on the right-wing fringe. Last night at a potluck, I met a man - a neighbor of friends, perhaps in his early fifties - who told me point-blank that he'd heard Obama speak and was appalled. He thought Obama didn't offer any substance, and worse, that he could be a demagogue. (National Review writer Lisa Schiffren agrees - h/t to Salon, which has the link to the NRO if you really wanna go there - showing once again, I'm afraid, that left and right can converge at their extremes.) He also contended that there were no real differences between Obama and McCain.
I think it's fine to warn against demagoguery. Germany, of all places, knows its dangers. I don't think it's a fair charge against Obama, but the past eight years have shown that even a much less gifted orator can play the demagogue.
As for the charge that Obama and McCain are indistinguishable? As pissed off as I still am about the FISA sell-out, I still had to remind tell my new friend that the same was said of Gore and Bush in 2000. And we all know where that got us.
Update, 7/24/08: In comments, Molly asks where the demagogue accusation comes from. I think it stems from the ancient idea that if you have a silver tongue, you must have some nefarious agenda. And I should repeat that I don't think that's true for Obama.
Also: At lunch today, over a plate full of the health-food-store version of Nutella, one of my Bear's friends, a nine-year-old girl, said to us about Obama: "Alle finden ihn toll!" That is, "Everyone thinks he's great!" Of course, her political opinions are about as independent as my sons' - but I think she's a pretty accurate reflection of public opinion.