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Barackin' In The Free World

Just back from a week of lectures around Bavaria--h/t to the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for inviting me--and, at least among the people I talked to, die Obamania remains stratospherically high. Too high, actually. I won’t pretend to speak for all Germans, or even most Bavarians, though in all I addressed about 1,500 people, from high school students to academics, politicians, and Bundeswehr officers. The most common question, predictably, was “Aren’t you worried that Obama, as a black man, will be assassinated?” But just behind were a collection of questions expressing an almost messianic faith in Obama’s ability to not only reverse Bush-era diplomatic drift, but revolutionize American values and lifestyles. Real, honest-to-God examples: “What will Obama do to change America’s culture of overconsumption?” “How does Obama plan to end America’s history of racism?” and my personal favorite, “What is Obama’s plan to address Americans who are overweight, lazy, and uneducated?” Because, you know, he doesn’t have much else to do.

Predictably, some also expressed an extreme pessimism about Obama’s ability to do anything dramatic in America. More than a few times, when I told people there was little he could do to end the death penalty--it’s a question for states and the courts, after all--the crowds visible curdled, as if it only proved their worst assumptions about American barbarism.

What concerns me is that both urges--unrealistic optimism and unrealistic pessimism--point to a very high hurdle among Europeans for our new president: If he can’t dramatically upturn what they see as a long history of American venality, then what good is he? Or, as Timothy Garton Ash noted in November, “Obama will discover within a few months how much the worldwide hostility tagged anti-Americanism truly is anti-Americanism and how much was just a violent allergy, shared by many Americans, to a particular president, a specific set of policies, and a certain version of Americanism.” I hope for the latter, but as reality sets in, I'm afraid that a certain amount of the former will once again become apparent.

--Clay Risen