Obama in Europe: Back among friends or another 'shellacking' ahead?

A rough trip to Asia behind him, Obama is heading to Europe, where his popularity is still high. But economic policy disputes with the Continent's leaders may make for a cool reception.

Virginia Mayo/AP
Two workers carry a sign inside the NATO summit venue in Lisbon on Thursday. Heads of State of NATO member countries gather for a two-day summit beginning on Friday, and will discuss topics including Afghanistan and missile defense. EU leaders will meet with US President Obama in a separate meeting on Saturday.

After a rough trip to Asia directly following his “shellacking” in the midterm elections, President Obama may think more comforting arms await him when he heads Friday to Western Europe, where adoring throngs greeted him not so long ago.

But with some European leaders bristling at the president’s call for measures to rebalance trade accounts – in other words, better conditions for US exports – and with others still smarting over his snubbing of a traditional US-European Union summit earlier this year, Mr. Obama may have another thing coming.

“Obama is still wildly popular with the European public, he’d be elected chancellor of Germany if he ever ran for office here, but it’s a very different story at the government and leadership levels,” says John Hulsman, a US foreign policy expert and international relations consultant in Berlin.

European leaders have watched, some wistful for days when Europe topped the US agenda, as Obama has shifted the focus of American foreign policy eastward to China and the Indian Ocean. But they have not remained quiet as cracks appeared in what was to be a unified approach to the global economic crisis. Germany and Britain under Prime Minister David Cameron reject Obama’s preference for spending to stimulate the economy, the German finance minister recently going so far as to label US economic intervention “clueless.”

Obama will be on the friendliest terrain at Friday’s NATO summit, where the US remains the leading power and where many European countries – facing troubled economies and drawing down defense budgets – are happy to defer to a US lead. France and Britain, the continent’s last global military powers, no longer look toward the day of a European defense and focus more on coordinating military capabilities between themselves and with the US.

And no one expects any big clashes at the NATO summit over Afghanistan, where the US lead is long established.

But the climate may not be so warm when the topic shifts to the economy at the US-EU summit Saturday afternoon. Obama already got an earful when he discussed his ideas for rebalancing international trade surpluses and deficits with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the recent G20 summit in Korea.

Or rather, he heard one word: “Nein!”

White House officials, eager to emphasize that the president is fully focused on creating American jobs, insist that Obama plans to pursue measures to induce trade-surplus countries to become bigger consumers. In previewing the president’s priorities for the US-EU summit, Liz Sherwood, the National Security Council’s senior director for European affairs, told reporters Obama plans to take up “steps to address current imbalances in the global economy.”

Both US and EU officials say the summit could deliver important action such as a common approach to this month’s conference on climate change in Cancun, Mexico, and better coordination of already intense counterterrorism cooperation.

But that will not change a sense that the bloom is off the rose for Obama among the Old Continent’s leadership.

“He was the coolest kid in high school, the one everybody wants to be with, but that was two years ago,” Mr. Hulsman says. “Now there are both some pretty harsh conclusions about who Obama is, as well as some real policy differences” in the economic realm.

Hulsman says he sees a growing sense among some quarters of the “European elites” that Obama is a “flash in the pan” whose leadership qualities were “over-rated.” But he also notes that the majority of European leaders, Britain’s Mr. Cameron aside, are either in political trouble at home themselves or could be nearing the end of their tenure.

The reality, Hulsman says, is that as the US looks increasingly eastward, Europe will continue to matter less to the US. And that will be true, he adds, no matter who is president.

Others underscore that reality by pointing out that Obama will spend barely 24 hours in Europe between the NATO summit and the meeting with the EU. By contrast, Obama’s Asia trip this month stretched out over 10 days.

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