Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Obamania: the view from Europe

It’s been interesting to watch the European coverage of Barack Obama’s mammoth victory in Iowa over the past few days. Beyond the fact that it is such big news here, what has been notable is what the European press is emphasizing in their coverage.

Had the Iowa caucus passed without any extraordinary result, say with a Hillary and Mitt win, it still would have been a major focus here. After all, US presidential elections are followed worldwide with great attention, and this is particularly true in Europe. With the US being the world’s lone superpower, it’s just a bizarre quirk of history that the decisions made by a few thousand people in Iowa every four years have a dramatic effect on the entire globe. Yet the European coverage of the primary season has switched into hyperactive gear this year not only because the continent is so eager for new leadership in the US, but also because of the surprise ascendancy of two previous unknowns in the first contest.

Of course, the fact that Huckabee and Obama won the Iowa caucuses wasn’t a huge surprise to many living in the US, as this result was largely expected weeks before the vote (though the margin of the victories was a surprise). But here in the UK, for instance, nobody knew who Huckabee was until Thursday and only the most current events-savvy Brits knew much about Obama. In fact the presumption here has been that Hillary Clinton was guaranteed to be the next US president.

Last night I flipped around between the major newscasts here and found to my surprise that every British station was broadcasting live from New Hampshire, with a few even having their main anchors there (Jon Snow with channel four for instance). It was a not-so-subtle reminder of how the decisions of American voters affect the entire globe. After a brief introduction to the charms of New England (made me a little homesick!) Snow set out across New Hampshire talking to people about little else but Obama. In fact the GOP contest was barely mentioned. Throughout the broadcast Obama was the obsession, and it was clear what a main driver of that obsession was: his race. It was a large focus of the broadcast, in fact Snow even asked an African American woman in New Hampshire if she was voting for Obama because she was black. She seemed a little taken aback. Can you imagine a US reporter asking that?

'Whites Elect Black'

In fact Obama’s race seemed to be the major obsession across Europe this weekend. The man was everywhere, blanketing the continent’s front pages and TV screens, even overshadowing the big news about the French president marrying a supermodel he met a month ago. Europe’s media, accustomed now to viewing the US with disdain and exasperation, almost seemed to be at a loss for how to cover the Iowa result, such was their astonishment.

The Times of London proclaimed that race relations in the US has been, “reshaped by the son of a Kenyan goatherd." Obama dominated the front pages Friday of The Guardian, The Independent and the Telegraph, which also ran big spreads inside on the candidate. In Germany, the Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung wrote, "Iowa is a U.S. state where people have surnames such as Kastner, Best or Danielson. They are white, raise pigs or cultivate corn, and in the history of their state have never elected an African-American to any office," (quote courtesy of the Globe and Mail). The paper also featured a huge photo of Obama beneath the headline "Whites select black."

Of course it’s not hard to see why Obama’s race was such a particular focus in Europe, because Europeans know such a result would never be possible anywhere on their continent. The idea of any European nation electing a black or Muslim leader is unimaginable. One side effect of an Obama victory could be to demonstrate how much further the US has progressed in race relations, in most respects, than its European counterparts.

The extreme difference in the coverage of Obama’s win on either side of the Atlantic is probably just due to that fact that the US dealt with these “are we ready?” issues way back when the primary began and the issue now seems relatively irrelevant, whereas in Europe they are just being introduced to Obama and are therefore entering their reflection period on the significance of his race just now.

World Hope

After all the race aspect is just a sideshow, and in the end the European media knows this. The main reason for the intense European focus on this election is that the stakes are so high. Europe is desperate for a change of leadership in the United States. Nowhere was this more evident than in the French media coverage, where Obama managed to dominate the front pages of the right-wing Le Figaro, the centrist Le Monde and the left-wing Libération all on the same day, a rare feat, according to the Globe and Mail.

Le Monde proclaimed, "The Greater America opts for the New Man," The editors of Libération wrote, "After eight years of depressing developments, finally some good news from the United States." The paper continued, "Barack Obama is an exemplar of the American tradition of pluralism ... Obama embodies the transformation, and it goes beyond his colour ... This is the man who could reconcile America with itself and with the rest of the world."

It’s hard to see how anyone could live up to these high expectations, but it’s significant that Obama is the one to inspire them. Whether or not Obama can effect the change he symbolizes, he has inspired a feeling of tremendous hope in a world that has felt only despair for many years. And that is no small feat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a Brit I can say I'm really sick of all this US election coverage. Can't we at least pretend for a little bit that we're not the 51st state?