Obama has been well received in Europe and, in some ways, the reaction seems to be on par with that usually received by the big celebrities. Huge crowds have turned out to see him and they seem very enthusiastic. I saw on CNN this morning that one woman who shook his hand said she would never wash it again. That is, of course, the sort of thing people say when they touch a star.
Some people have been rather critical of Obama’s tour and speeches. For example, McCain said that he’d like to give a speech in Germany but added that he would do it as President. Presumably his point is that Obama should not be acting like a statesman (or President) on tour. Of course, McCain did challenge Obama on his foreign policy experience and challenged him to get out into the world. Now that Obama has done that and done so well, McCain is trying to attack him for. That is like attacking someone for not being a runner, goading them into running races and then attacking them when they start taking home big trophies.
Obama does, of course, run the risk of seeming presumptuous. After all, he is a young senator and not the President. Hence, meeting world leaders, drawing vast crowds, and making moving speeches to the world might be seen as crossing a line. That said, Obama is the presumptive Democratic candidate and he has been criticized for his lack of experience on the global stage. As such, he seems to be doing the right thing. Further, people seem to really like him and this can only help to improve America’s standing and popularity.
Turning to the matter of popularity, while his popularity abroad is probably due partially to the fact that he is not George Bush, much of it is due to his qualities. There is no denying that Obama has charisma, eloquence and crowd appeal. While some might regard these as superficial, they are actually important qualities in a leader. After all, a leader needs to be able to lead and influence others. Someone who lakes those traits will tend to be much less effective in a leadership role. Naturally, a good leader needs to have solid substance under that “gold plating” and “silver tongue.” Obama is clearly intelligent, thoughtful and well educated. However, how well these traits will serve him as President remains to be seen. After all, as the right loves to point out, Jimmy Carter is intelligent, thoughtful and well educated but his presidency was hardly a success.
overall, I think that Obama’s popularity abroad is a good sign. While much of it, as noted above, is due to the fact that he is not Bush, much of it seems to also be due to a genuine liking of Obama and America. While Machiavelli made it clear that no wise prince relies on the love of others, it would be helpful to America to have a President who is well liked. Our President stands for our country and represents us to the world. As such, he shapes the world’s perception of America. Since most people around the world (and the US) think poorly of George Bush, it is hardly surprising that America is not well liked. However, international response to Obama shows that the damage Bush did to America is not irreparable and that that Obama can probably count on considerable good will from the world.
While it is comforting and ego boosting to think that we do not need the good will of the world, we actually do. While being liked is not a substitute for political, economic or military power, it does help in many small ways that add up to significant results. For example, if world leaders know that their people really like America, they will be more inclined to work with us. As another example, if America has the good will of the world, we will enjoy more respect and confidence from the world and this can have a very concrete impact on the economy. After all, the dollar’s strength is partially based on the faith that people put in America.
Of course, being liked is not enough. A President needs to be a competent, decisive leader who can make rational and effective decisions. These decisions need to be for the good of the country and consistent with our core values. It has been a long time since we have had a President like that. Maybe Obama can be this sort of President. Maybe McCain can. Or maybe neither is up to the job. So far, Obama seems to be ahead of McCain, but time can change many things.