The Way Things Are and How They Might Be

Tony-judt Tony Judt and Kristina Božić in the LRB:

Europeans fell in love with Obama even before he became president. At the same time we are hardly aware of who our new president is, the president of the EU. The feelings aren’t reciprocal, are they?

Enthusiasm for Barack Obama in the US was initially huge, but it had a very domestic dynamic, it was a story about how America could elect a black person only 150 years after slavery, 40 after segregation ended. It meant – though this was a little too optimistic – that we were finally ready to put an end to the race question. That he would change policies, present a new face of America, bring an end to the Bush era and begin a new relationship between America and the world: these considerations mattered only to a small number of people. Here is the asymmetry between American and European expectations: Europeans believed there would be a radical improvement, a moral regeneration of US foreign policy; they are disappointed, or will be, because this isn’t going to happen. Americans’ expectations were partly fulfilled by Obama’s election itself. It was bound to be disappointing from there on: the first black man to be elected president of the United States was never going to be an out and out radical, a wild, courageous, path-breaking liberal or social democrat.

Obama is none of these things. He is a compromiser, constantly trying to build a bipartisan relationship between the Republicans and the Democrats. Furthermore, it might have been more obvious in the US than in Europe that Obama was very distinctly part of the American tradition of rhetoric. He is a great speaker, a great mover of crowds and, in a way, a great manipulator of morality and ethical ideals. This tradition goes from Adlai Stevenson all the way back to Abraham Lincoln and on. What Obama is missing is the ability to channel his rhetoric into political strengths. The danger we Americans see is that he will be weakened by the gap between his rhetoric and his actions. This is true for his policies in the Middle East, and to an extent also for his response to the economic crisis. Europeans don’t see this yet.