Barack Obama’s campaign for President of the United States captivated audiences across the globe. His well-delivered messages of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ resonated not only with many Americans tired of an unpopular president and an increasingly polarized political debate, but also with Europeans who wondered what direction America might take after 8 years in which policies across the Atlantic seemed to be diverging from those embraced in Europe. Add to this a context of enormous economic uncertainty and ever-present threats of terrorism and armed conflict and it should come as no surprise that such a new and incredibly charismatic politician promising a sharp change from the previous administration’s policies would be welcomed with open arms on a continent which, by and large, made no secret of its disdain for George W. Bush.
Judging from the levels of enthusiasm displayed across Europe in its news programming, political debate, and even popular culture, one could be forgiven for thinking that Barack Obama was perhaps running for ‘President of the World’. The fact that European political candidates with similar credentials or background would never enjoy such widespread support or success in Europe made no difference. The hope and change that Obama had come to represent enjoyed global appeal and Europe, it was safe to say, led that charge.
Now that the celebrations have died down, however, and the enthusiasm is less visible, have European concerns about American policies and EU-US relations over the past 8 years have been allayed? Is the drop-off in Europe of Obama t-shirt sales and special segments on the news indicative of an 8-year struggle that has finally been ‘won’? Now that such an inspirational man is President of the United States – and is supported by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress – all of the bad and controversial policies of the past 8 years will be undone and replaced with better ones that Europeans can welcome and more easily support, right? Hardly.
President Obama now faces the much harder – and much less fun – task of delivering on the promises he made during the campaign and articulating into policy the ‘hope’ and ‘change’ that captivated American voters and so many European observers. While Europeans can take comfort knowing that it is more likely that a President Obama will execute policies that are more popular in Europe than say a President McCain, it cannot be said to be more certain, as history has proven time and time again.
1) Presidential campaign promises are rarely kept – Bill Clinton scared conservatives across America and heartened the American Left with a campaign featuring a left-wing agenda marked by national healthcare and improvements in public education, among other ideas. Yet, Clinton is now remembered more for reforming welfare, signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and balancing the federal budget – hardly an execution of the left-wing policies that many on the right had feared and for the left had hoped. George W. Bush campaigned on ‘compassionate conservatism’ and a ‘humble’ American foreign policy in which the US would engage less, not more, in the affairs of other countries. 8 years later, both of these ideas seem laughable. The reason that it is safe to assume that it is unlikely for Barack Obama to deliver on all of his campaign promises as well leads to the next point:
2) Circumstances change – Obama attracted many supporters with his calls for an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq. When the war was going badly and American casualties mounted, this was a popular position to hold, particularly considering how the country was led to war in the first place. However, as more and more people have accepted the success of the ‘surge’ there and Iraq makes fewer headlines, the wisdom of such a withdrawal now seems less clear to many Americans. Will Obama’s campaign promises force him to ignore such realities? Of course not – the new President has already backtracked from proposals such as the 16-month pullout and it now appears safe to assume that US forces will remain in Iraq for several more years as the situation there continues to improve.
More glaringly, the economic crisis which has enveloped the US, as well as Europe and the rest of the world, threatens to put much of Obama’s domestic plans on hold. Will the President be as capable of delivering on his environmental promises – so welcome in Europe – and introducing new regulation which would curb American CO2 production when US industry and average Americans are struggling so mightily? Will the government have the money to invest in the green technology that Obama has so strongly advocated? It’s possible, but much less likely than American voters – or European observers – may have believed in October or November of last year.
3) Continuity of American foreign policy – Although the rhetoric may change, by and large, US foreign policy has exhibited a certain level of continuity throughout the past century. Can we really expect President Obama to make unprecedented changes here? To the relief of Europeans and many Americans, he has promised and already signed orders to close the prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Yet, even here he has left himself room for maneuver as it remains unclear when the prison will actually shut its doors. He’s given Europeans hope that the next 4 years will be marked by greater EU-US cooperation than the differences and disagreements of the Bush years. But, despite the media rhetoric, EU-US relations have been already been improving over the past 2-3 years. Will this continue, as one would expect under President Obama, or will serious disagreement emerge when the President asks for greater European help in Afghanistan – one of the new President’s clearest foreign policy priorities – or decides to launch more unilateral attacks in Pakistan? So far, few European countries seem willing to offer any more troops to support the President’s plan ‘surge’ in Afghanistan and it’d be hard to imagine the European citizenry supporting more missile attacks or stepped-up engagement along Pakistan’s border.
Great figures are accompanied by great rhetoric – both their own and that of their supporters. As evidenced by the inspiration he’s given to so many people and the enthusiasm which has surrounded his candidacy and victory, Obama has already proven to be such a great figure, worthy of promise and hope. Unfortunately perhaps, the rhetoric has been just as great and it will prove very difficult for President Obama to even come close to living up to such a standard. Considering today’s economic and cultural realities, as sad it may sound, the overwhelming European enthusiasm and celebrations in November and January may truly have been only about ‘hope’ rather than any significant ‘change’.