After election 2010, Europe asks why US no longer smitten with Obama

In the wake of Republican gains in Tuesday's midterm elections, Europeans are wondering why a president who captivated their hearts was dealt such a blow.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama waves as he turns to leave after a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on Nov. 3.

In much of Europe, where President Obama remains quite popular, the saving grace after Tuesday's vote is that at least the president and his Democratic allies retained the US Senate.

Beyond that, however, this year's midterm election that delivered a stinging rebuke to the Obama agenda has many Europeans at a loss over why Americans are not as smitten with Mr. Obama, who is seen here as cool, articulate, and almost European, as they are.

In Berlin, Paris, and London, the tea party movement, which helped hand the US House to the Republicans, has many worried the country itself may be captive to the aggressive conservatism that Obama’s election was supposed to end.

“The Europeans and the French are sad to see what could be the rise of a weakened America, a unilateralist America, the America of George W. Bush that they were so allergic to,” says Dominique Moisi, a founder and senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations. “So there is concern and sadness about the election outcome.”

Indeed, the post-US election tone on the Continent is a long way from the ebullience that greeted Obama's victory two years ago, when he was heralded as “president of the world.” Now, there's concern in Europe that the popular president may become a one-term office-holder.

This morning, however, the Paris Marianne website argued the tea party victories weren't a tidal wave of success: “They had predicted Barack Obama would be met with the worst kind of electoral rout … but the Democrats have managed to save their majority at the Senate."

Over the past several months, Europeans, who have been somewhat rapt with the tea party movement, have been trying to find reasons, if not excuses, for why Obama has grown unpopular stateside.

In the German press, a leitmotif has emerged that Obama is getting his comeuppance. “The Election Debacle: A Settling of Accounts with Mr. Perfect,” read a headline in Der Spiegel.

Europeans are using the tenure of President George W. Bush to gauge the direction in which the tea party could move the country. While Peggy Noonan, former Reagan White House speechwriter, described the tea party in a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed as moving Republicans beyond Bush, Europeans appear tone deaf to that nuance.

“The coverage was more than I’ve ever seen in a midterm,” says political scientist Nicole Bacharan at the Paris-based Sciences Po, a leading academic institution in France. “We want to see if it is again the Bush America, the tea party, the very conservative, the intolerant. Is that America still there and powerful and maybe not what we thought?”

Correct or not, many Europeans find elements of the tea party similar to new far-right movements in Europe, particularly in nativist and anti-Islam rhetoric and irritation at political elites.

Reaction and commentary is focused on how Obama can or can’t work with Republicans, what affect a divided Congress will have on policies favored in Europe, and why Democrats were ineffective.

The Independent editorialized: "A divided government in Washington will threaten to neuter the ‘Obama revolution’ that sparked so much anticipation globally…. A chill could quickly settle both on elements of his domestic agenda and on America’s engagement on the world stage, jeopardizing progress on topics as … arms control and climate change."

To be sure, Europeans have serious differences with the Obama administration on many fronts. The White House is widely viewed as not putting Europe on a high priority list. US-European solutions for global economic recovery differed sharply this spring with Obama backing stimulus at the G-20 Toronto summit, while Europe touted austerity. The Afghanistan initiative is deeply unpopular.

But the Obama's policies on climate change or health care are viewed here as long overdue; there was general incomprehension in Europe at efforts in Washington to block health care reform.

“Europeans acknowledge that Obama might not have been assertive enough," says Karim Emile Bitar at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, "but overall they think he did a reasonably good job in his first two years, considering he doesn’t have a magic wand and he inherited the disastrous Bush-Cheney legacy."

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