Candidate Obama came to London as part of a whirlwind European tour, designed (said his critics) to prove that he has what it takes to direct the United States in foreign affairs. Of course this question mattered not at all to the people on the other side of the ocean. Whatever he said or did was going to be fine. A bit like the discussion over Michelle Obama’s wardrobe, the debate over his foreign policy credentials was a little artificial. Michelle Obama was so popular that she could have dressed up in a potato sack with plastic bag sleeves. As long as she was in the clothes who cared about the style? Similarly, as long he showed up and smiled most people in Europe were not fussed about the details of Obama’s candidacy. They wanted to be delivered from the republicans. The rest was mere detail.
Except there was a rather important detail that was bound to loom larger once he was in office – the fact that he was running for American President. Such was the Obamamania overseas that his nationality and the nationality of the voters was often ignored.
I took my thirteen year old son to see candidate Obama when he came to London. There was a largish crowd outside the building where he was meeting the Prime Minister. The visit had not been advertised as in Germany so the fact that a respectable crowd had assembled anyway was further testament to his popularity.
My son and I were eventually approached by a reporter who first asked “Are you Americans?” I smiled with understanding. I recognized many in a crowd from the Obama support group that I had left early in the campaign. I went to a meeting to connect with voters but found myself surrounded by foreigners (both British and non-British). So I left them to their enthusiastic chanting and joined Democrats Abroad instead.
The reporter told me he had interviewed some people at length only to discover that they were not Americans and in some cases had never even been to the United States. We spoke about the phenomenon of foreign “groupies” for Obama and I predicted to the reporter that if Obama were elected they would one day be bitterly disappointed as presidents are bound to put Americans first. This was an unexplainable point in the Obama group where they seemed to feel he was literally one of them. It’s as if they thought he represented the world rather than the state of Illinois. Interestingly, a lot of attention was paid to his Harvard degree which probably helped to obscure his American-ness. Forty plus years ago Harvard was associated with JFK and possessed an image as American as football and cheerleaders but the increased international reputation and student body of the Harvard MBA programme and the Kennedy School of Government have made Harvard into a global brand. It’s also possible that seeing Barack Obama as international rather than as American reflected a residual attitude I have detected overseas where dark-skinned Americans and second generation Americans are sometimes regarded as less American than others.
Whatever the reason, I explained to the reporter that my attempts to warn them that one day President Obama would be forced to take an American view of a situation was greeted with smiles and disbelief.
In Britain at least, that message has literally been drilled home by tensions between the White House and BP over the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Oh well, I suppose it’s best that they learned sooner than later that there is an “A” in Obama – in fact there are two.