June 26, 2011
In a deservedly obscure village among the green hills and dairy farms of Ireland's midlands stands a pub that has been turned into a shrine to Barack Obama. In the back room of Ollie Hayes' saloon, a large and markedly unattractive fake-bronze bust of the president sits on a pedestal flanked by beer glasses; over the fireplace there's a portrait of the great man hoisting a pint of Guinness, and other Obama memorabilia covers the walls.
Moneygall is the village to which Obama aides managed to trace the president's Irish ancestry, and Ollie's is the pub the president visited a month ago to meet his eighth cousins and embrace his Celtic heritage.
That connection has produced a modest flow of tourists seeking out the spot where Obama found his Hibernian roots. "We've had people coming at all hours," the barman told me last week. But they've been mostly Irish tourists, not Americans. "You're used to him, perhaps," he said. "We're not."
Europe is still in love with Barack Obama. It's not only the Irish, who are always ready to be wooed by any American president with a connection to their island. Even the more reserved British seemed ecstatic when Obama visited London last month, swarming into the streets to watch his motorcade pass.
When Obama gave a pretty good speech to the House of Commons touching on the usual themes of shared values, the British swooned. The Times of London, an ordinarily conservative newspaper owned by Fox News czar Rupert Murdoch, compared Obama's oratorical skills to those of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
Polls show much the same phenomenon across the English Channel in Germany and France. Our president can't keep his job approval rating above 50% at home, but on the Continent he's admired and esteemed. One poll last year found that 78% of Europeans approved of Obama's leadership, a figure far outstripping what the president scored at home.
Across the pond, Obama's biography still impresses people as a demonstration of the meritocracy at the heart of the American dream, something not all European countries yet have — at least, not to the same extent. Obama's speech at Westminster played on this explicitly, noting that the Western ideal of equality had made it possible for "the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British army to stand before you as president of the United States."
In Europe, Obama also benefits from the fact that many voters aren't happy with their own leaders and are glad to compare them to someone else. Europe is in a full-blown economic crisis, and it's not clear that any politician is on top of it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron have all seen their poll ratings slump. (Don't even mention Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who's on trial for — among other things — allegedly paying underage prostitutes.)
And many Europeans like Obama's relatively diffident brand of U.S. leadership: the fact that he asks them for cooperation and consultation, not just allegiance. In the war in Libya, for example, "he hasn't insisted on the United States being in front," an Italian businessman told me approvingly. Americans may be uncomfortable with the idea of "leading from behind," but Europeans are still charmed by the fact that Obama isn't George W. Bush.
The problem for Obama, of course, is that none of that matters where it counts: with the American electorate that will decide on his reelection next year. Americans don't much care that our president is more charismatic than the German chancellor, or that our economy is marginally less shaky than Europe's.
In a sense, Obama is a victim of his own success as a path breaker. His biography still wows them in London, but we're no longer enthralled by it here. The story of the skinny young politician with a funny name, half-Kansan and half-Kenyan, is old news. But that's also a reflection of progress.
A Gallup poll this month found that only 5% of American voters acknowledge qualms about an African American as president, far lower than the 22% who said they could not vote for a Mormon. That 5% may be artificially low, of course, because poll respondents know that racism is socially unacceptable. But it's worth remembering that Obama won more white votes in 2008 than John F. Kerry did in 2004.
In 2012, Obama's biography and his race will be even less a factor than they were in 2008. He won't be running as an African American or an Irish American or even a hybrid American; he'll be running as an incumbent with a record. His popularity in Europe won't help; nor will his newfound roots in Moneygall. Only an economic recovery will.
The 2012 election is likely to be as post-racial an election as America can produce. Ironically, that may not be entirely good news for Barack Obama.
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