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Europe still swooning over Obama

As a candidate, Barack Obama was a pop star in Europe. Thousands cheered during his speech in Berlin last year. Now that he is President, much has changed for Obama, but one thing hasn't: his popularity in Europe.

A man holds a poster saying Obama for Chancellor

Obama remains hugely popular in Germany

When it comes to popularity, only the Dalai Lama poses any competition for the US president. But even the Tibetan spiritual leader ultimately is no match for Barack Obama. According to an international poll by Harris Interactive, conducted in the five largest European countries and the US and published in early April, 80 percent of adults in the countries polled have a good opinion of the American president. The Dalai Lama comes in second with 74 percent. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the most popular European leader, takes third place with 52 percent.

Obama speaks to a crowd in Prague

Large crowds came to see Barack Obama during his speech in Prague

Obama remains popular at home as well, but his international appeal dwarfs his domestic favorability ratings. In all five European countries (Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain), Obama scored higher than in the US. And so far, there seems no end in sight for Europe's Obama swoon. On a recent trip to Prague, the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes led with the headline "The O-Day," and the British Guardian this week lauded Obama's "epoch-defining 100 days."

Change in style and substance

While Obama's continued popularity couldn't necessarily be expected, it can be explained. "We got the man we wanted," says Marcin Zaborowski, of the European Union's Institute for Security Studies. "He has initiated change in many different areas ranging from relations with Iran and Russia to the closing of Guantanamo and the withdrawal from Iraq. That's why Europeans have lots of reasons to be happy about the first months of the Obama administration."

What's more, with his charm offensive and overtures towards European leaders during his first official visit to the continent a few weeks ago, Obama has certainly made it difficult for Europeans not to like him. He has also been careful to recognize the political sensibilities of his allies and to avoid the harsh rhetoric of his predecessor.

But, argues Fabrice Pothier, Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Europe, Obama is still in the early phase of promises and not yet in the phase of delivery which will probably start next year. Still, Obama deserves a very good grade for his first 100 days, says Pothier, because he really intends to change not just the style, but also the substance of U.S. foreign policy.

Possible problems

Obama announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan

President Obama announced his new strategy for Afghanistan in March

Despite the continuing honeymoon between the Europeans and Obama, experts warn of underlying problems in transatlantic relations. With his new Afghanistan policy, Obama has put pressure on some European countries, especially Germany, to do more, says Zaborowski. "But since the Europeans are not willing to commit a substantial number of additional troops to Afghanistan, the US will have twice as many troops there as its allies. Originally, there used to be parity. That is not a good sign for US-European relations and for NATO."

Fabrice Pothier, Director of Carnegie Europe, detects a large gap between public sentiment towards Obama and political action in Europe. "So far, Obama has mostly met his expectations, but Europe's governments haven't done their part. Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown, two of Europe's most important leaders, are in election mode and haven't shown much enthusiasm to help Obama." Nicholas Sarkozy is also not an easy partner for Obama, says Pothier, and the EU doesn't speak with one voice and is therefore also not a reliable player.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel have their focus on national elections

Too much, too fast

On certain issues, Obama ironically turns out to be more European than the Europeans themselves, argues Zaborowski. "His move to seriously engage Iran, which Europe has always demanded from Washington, was not greeted with full enthusiasm by all European countries. Instead, France and others have called upon the US not to do too much too fast."

In the long run, this lopsidedness consisting of active US leadership and reluctant European followers could hurt European-American relations, the experts point out. Barack Obama is not a president who is naturally inclined towards Europe, stresses Pothier. His natural focus lies in Asia, but he has shown a lot of goodwill and has also learned to manage his expectations towards Europe. "But we really must do more to help Obama, especially fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. If Europe continues to fail to deliver, Obama at some point will be forced to look elsewhere for partners."

Author: Michael Knigge

Editor: Susan Houlton

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