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Obama has Europe in his corner

Leaders and citizens eagerly await his visit. But they also know their enthusiasm may backfire for him in U.S.

July 16, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — From prime ministers to college students, Europeans want to cloak Barack Obama in a warm embrace when he arrives on the continent next week. But they're also aware that anything that looks or smells like elitist Old Europe could hurt the Democratic contender with voters back home.

Obama has yet to finalize his itinerary for Europe. However, he is already set to skip Brussels, the capital of the modern united continent, for the traditional symbols of economic and military power: London, Paris and Berlin.

All those European capitals' leaders have expressed a willingness to adapt their schedules to see the American politician whose sky-high approval ratings in their countries are at least as good as their own. Polls reveal that if they could vote in the United States, between 53% and 72% of the British, French and German public would pull the lever for Obama.

"If Britons elected American presidents, Barack Obama would have no worries," began an editorial in the left-wing British newspaper, the Guardian.

Yet the editorial also recognized that his popularity in Europe would not help at home: "To be seen as Europe's pet is the last thing a presidential candidate needs -- especially one who wants to shed his elitist image with white working-class American voters."

In France, where Obama's liberal profile appeals to both Socialists and members of President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right party, pundits recalled that four years ago most of Europe gushed over Democrat John F. Kerry (who spoke impeccable French).

"Look at what good that did him," a Sarkozy friend noted dryly during this week's swanky Bastille Day celebrations in the garden of the presidential Elysee Palace.

"We're not trying to give advice to Americans," said Samuel Solvit, 22, a French business student who started an Obama support committee in Paris that counts prominent politicians among its 3,000 members. "We just wanted to show that we admire Sen. Obama because he can renew politics in America -- and in the world."

At his monthly news conference Monday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested topics for his second meeting with Obama (they saw each other in Washington this spring), including soaring food and oil prices.

Clearly, the centerpiece of Obama's European visit will be a speech in Berlin. Across Europe, the chattering class has been caught up in the polemic within the German government over whether he should give that address in front of the historic Brandenburg Gate near where a wall once divided East and West Berlin.

Obama's staff was in Berlin on Tuesday scouting other locations after Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said the German leader was "very much interested" in meeting with Obama but was not enthusiastic about him using the gate as a backdrop for his electoral effort.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an Obama fan, told reporters that he had no problem with the candidate stopping at the gate. "The Americans decisively contributed in saving the freedom of Berlin, so we should make it possible for them to speak at historic sites," he told the German newspaper Bild.

Earlier, Obama advisors were quoted in the German media as saying Obama wanted to answer criticism that he'd shown little interest in Europe -- having spent only 24 hours here in the last decade -- by rekindling memories of a youthful Democratic President John F. Kennedy, who in 1963 famously declared at that spot "Ich bin ein Berliner!" (I am a Berliner.)

Germans such as Georg Kaiser, a retired teacher, seem unfazed that the American might milk a symbol like the gate to do retail politics back home. "The speech, as far as I expect it, will be a clear campaigning thing," he said. "He won't address the Germans or Europeans, but he will address his potential voters in the U.S.A., and show them how fit he is in foreign policy."

Some of the salivating over Obama in Europe is rooted as much in his profile as an energetic and deft politician with a classic liberal agenda as in the overwhelming yearning of Europe to see a change, any change, in the political direction of the United States.

In expectation of Obama's visit, London's Observer last weekend printed an editorial titled "The world is waiting to love America again."

"Should he win in November," the editorial predicted, "Obama's priorities will be domestic ones but he also has a formidable opportunity to recast America's relationship with the world. It is this relationship which took such a battering during the Bush presidency as anti-Americanism took root across the globe."

Still, some Europeans are nervous that Obama's positions are growing ambiguous on such important issues as Iraq and trade policy as he attempts to win broader support ahead of the general election.

Even though they see the necessary pragmatism of such a move, French commentators, for example, have been referring to his being a "weather vane," or girouette, who has modified his views to gain independent voters beyond his left-center base.

Chris Brown, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said European politicians will be eager for signs that Obama will remain committed to pulling troops out of Iraq and will not bow to pressure from fellow Democrats and back off free-trade policies.

Obama plans to visit the Middle East as part of the trip. He is also preparing to travel soon to Iraq and Afghanistan but has kept the timing of those visits secret.

Summing up, the professor said European leaders "will be looking to be photographed with [Obama] because he's good vibes, and . . . they'll be looking for reassurances [on trade policy] more than anything else."


Times staff writers Janet Stobart in London and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.

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