Barack Obama has not turned out to be the President whom Europeans expected he would be. And if public opinion serves as a guide, the President has been a disappointment for Americans as well.
These were among the points I made in an address to the prestigious Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin last week. The Foundation, which is aligned with the conservative CDU party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a major force in German politics, and its staff and supporters are well connected to the European political scene.
When Barack Obama addressed several hundred thousand Germans at Berlin’s Victory Column in 2008, it came at a time when President Bush’s standing in European public opinion had reached its nadir. Obama would present the starkest break from the policies of the Bush Administration, and the European public responded with glowing approval and anticipation.
Yet today, even the left-leaning European press has turned against America’s chief advocate of “hope” and “change.” While Americans’ disapproval stems in part from the President’s left-leaning tendencies on subjects like health care and regulation, along with the failure of his policies to generate sufficient economic growth, the Europeans’ disappointment in President Obama is that he has not been liberal enough.
The distinction says as much about the difference between Europeans’ attitudes on global issues as it does about President Obama’s performance. Europe’s political “center” remains significantly to the left of America’s.
In short, Europe expected the election of Barack Obama to produce big, bold action against “climate change,” a more multilateral American foreign policy, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, and other breaks from President Bush’s policies.
Ironically, the President’s agenda of big-spending stimulus, a giant health care bill, a pullout from Iraq, “leading from behind” on Libya, and less-than-reliable support for Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has not been sufficient for the European chattering class, which expected more.
In my comments to the Foundation, I noted that when observing the American presidential election from the other side of the Atlantic, it’s important to first understand the last presidential election. Americans delivered a landslide victory for Barack Obama and his Democratic Party in 2008, but that did not mean America suddenly decided to become a lot more like Sweden.
The economic crisis that struck in September 2008 beginning with the failure of Lehman Bros. and leading to TARP created a political environment so toxic to Republicans that no Republican nominee, John McCain or otherwise, could prevail. The collapse occurred on Republicans’ watch, and our team paid the political price.
Yet, Americans’ views on the issues and the role of government didn’t change, as the reaction delivered in November 2010 proved. Responding to the President’s agenda, the American people took 63 House seats away from Democrats and gave them to Republicans in the biggest loss for a President’s party since 1938.
America remains a center-right country that values limited government, free enterprise, and a global leadership role for the United States. The November election pits support for those values, together with dissatisfaction with the results of the Democrats’ economic policies, against the power of incumbency and a Democratic President who has traded the mantra of “hope” and “change” for a wink a nod to the “Occupy” movement that aims to divide, rather than unite.