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World

Mixture of Support and Skepticism for Obama in Davos

Despite the absence of cabinet members of the new US administration at the World Economic Forum, President Obama is all the talk in Davos. Can he reverse the ailing economy and restore America's role in the world?

A student wears a mask of President Barack Obama at a rally in Manilla

Obama entered office with the promise of change. Some say its time for action

Predictions of the imminent decline of the US as the major global power are nothing new. Back in 1988, the late Samuel Huntington wrote a long essay about what he described as the fifth way of declinism since the 1950's. Then, as now, economic and military factors were the major factors why many perceived the US to be on a slow but steady downward spiral as a great power.

However, there are many stark differences between 1998 and 2008 and 2009 that make it difficult to compare the periods, for example, the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of Islamic extremism, and most importantly, globalization.

US a constant topic in Davos

With the world in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, what are the chances that the US under its new President Barack Obama can master the situation, and how will the US and the world be changed through this crisis? This is a question that is being discussed almost incessantly at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Of course, the subject is not addressed as such, but it is the theme that runs as an undercurrent through almost any small talk or debate.

And while all the latest economic indicators signal more doom and gloom for the world's biggest economy - house prices decline by almost 20 percent, durable goods orders decline for the fifth month in a row, unemployment skyrocketing - the amount of respect and hope business and government leaders from around the world place on President Barack Obama to turn the U.S. economy around and restore the country's stature in the world is astonishing.

"I am a huge fan of Barack Obama," says Klaas Kersting, CEO of Gameforge AG, a German online gaming start-up. "I think he had a really good start of turning things around to bring the U.S. out of its moral crisis."

African roots a factor for Obama's popularity

An unidentified Kenyan in Kisumu, Western Kenya, Wednesday Nov. 5, 2008, celebrates the victory of Barack Obama in the American presidential election

Africa, and Kenya in particular, have high hopes for Obama

Arthur Mutambara, Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), cites a different reason why he believes President Obama can bring about the change he promised during his election campaign: "Being of African extraction, being a son of a Kenyan, yes, he has the potential to do it. What it requires is the confidence and the courage to do so."

While President Obama won international praise for some of the early decisions he made right after taking office, Linda Lorimer, Vice President of Yale University, makes a different argument: "I think the steps they took before the inauguration are even more important than what they have done in the first days of the administration, which is have a sense of prospect and promise. I think those of us here who are in business or academia know that leadership today is about teamwork. America needs to assert its leadership by showing it is part of the team of leading countries in the world and no longer is a go-it-alone kind of enterprise."

Listen, don't patronise

The sentiment expressed by Lorimer that the US should again engage and cooperate with other nations is also common theme in Davos. "Barack Obama must make sure that on Africa he listens to Africans and not to come to Africa and patronise Africa," says Zimbabwe's Deputy Prime Minister Mutambara. "We in Africa know what is good for ourselves and Americans and the international community must listen to us not the other way around."

Even Iran's Foreign Minister said here in Davos that his country was ready to respond if America's policy change was genuine.

While Barack Obama and his administration appear to have plenty of goodwill, trust and support from around the world, the question is whether that is enough. According to all major indicators, the economic situation in the US looks so grim that a quick way out of the misery seems all but impossible.

Hard struggle ahead

Obama points down the table during a meeting with his economic advisory team in Chicago

Obama and his team face huge challenges

However, even a self-declared Obama fan like Gameforge CEO Kersting turns pessimistic when being asked about a prediction whether the new administration can reverse the downward trend. "The economic challenges are dramatic. The US economy is significantly suffering - finance, automotive and all the suppliers for that matter. It is really a very big challenge and countries like China or India don't sleep; they grow in these times of crisis. They grow slowly, but they still grow, so I think it is going to be a hard struggle for Obama to turn this around."

At this point, no one here in Davos or anywhere else for that matter appears to know how and when America's economy will come out of the crisis. So what does that mean for people around the world who are waiting for President Obama to fulfill his promise to bring change to the world?

"We can't possibly expect one person to solve all the ills that all of us are looking at," says Yale Vice President Lorimer and adds: "We have to hope that his very able team reaching out to the very able leadership around the world will find the right course of action."

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