Obama popular, but Europe seeks results
When President Bush visited London in 2003, protests were so furious and safeguards so tight that he was kept deep inside his security bubble, far from the madding crowd.
By contrast, an admired President Obama touched down Tuesday and paid a placid visit to U.S. Embassy staffers at a school in the heart of residential London before this week’s economic summit.
Obama remains nearly as popular as he was during his last European visit, as a presidential candidate, when hundreds of thousands of Europeans came to hear him speak. Referring to this week’s visit, one newspaper declared the return of “Obamania.”
But the initial love affair may be cooling somewhat. Obama is still seen as the antithesis of Bush, but he is no longer a fresh-faced candidate. Rather, he is the representative of a country and an economic system that many Europeans blame for leading them into the financial crisis.
“There’s been a fundamental shift in attitudes,” said Robin Shepherd, director of international affairs and an expert on transatlantic relations at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank. “Obama was a symbol and an idol at a time when people were looking for symbols and idols. He has to deliver now.”
The global economy’s nose dive has changed the backdrop for Obama’s first visit to Europe as president. In the run-up to Thursday’s gathering of the Group of 20 nations, many European policymakers have disagreed with Obama’s free-spending prescription for getting out of the economic ditch. And other differences are becoming apparent as well.
Obama has disappointed war-weary Europeans with his calls for NATO countries to send more combat troops to Afghanistan, as well as with support for other long-standing American positions such as the death penalty.
“I think some of the glitter has gone off Obama’s original shine as Europeans grapple with a crisis that they think originated in the United States and which they don’t yet believe Obama is solving,” said Reginald Dale, director of the Transatlantic Media Network and a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But in general I believe that Europeans will still give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being. They want to like him, they want to respect him.”
Demonstrations certainly are being planned in London, although early protests surrounding the summit centered on environmental, economic and foreign policy issues, in contrast with the enraged, highly personal demonstrations that greeted Bush.
“Nobody’s interested anymore in grand speeches,” Shepherd said. “What people need are results. That’s what he’s going to be judged on.”
In addition to differences with Europeans over the financial crisis, Obama is likely to meet today with Chinese President Hu Jintao and could confront Beijing’s challenge to the U.S. dollar as the world currency standard.
Despite early signs of discontent from some leaders, there is also evidence that Obama’s popularity continues, both among world leaders and ordinary Europeans.
Obama T-shirts and memorabilia still stock the gift shops and kiosks of London, and he is well liked, particularly among students and younger professionals across Europe.
Obama’s candidacy felt like “the beginning of a new era” for Kat Berry of London. But that was before the 32-year-old television ad writer was laid off and went back into a tight job market.
“Now I don’t know what he can do for people like me who’ve lost their jobs,” Berry said Tuesday as she made her way to a job interview at a local shopping mall.
Aides to Obama were fine-tuning his schedule as late as Tuesday, trying to accommodate leaders who want to meet and be photographed with the American president.
Obama is set to meet today with Queen Elizabeth II, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and British opposition leader David Cameron. Obama’s host throughout will be British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with whom he meets first thing today.
“There has been an appreciable amount of interest,” said one Obama administration official, “and a lot of desire to talk with him.”
As Obama advisors see it, the president achieved some measure of success before holding his first meeting this week. Members of the G-20 have adopted economic stimulus plans that, by White House calculations, reflect a total of about 1.8% of gross domestic product for this year.
Times staff writers Henry Chu and Janet Stobart in London and special correspondent Lucie Kavanova in Berlin contributed to this report.