The American presidential elections 2008: Waiting for the messiah

The US opinion polls suggest a clear victory for Barack Obama in this week’s presidential elections. Most Europeans – including the vast majority of Greeks, according to an earlier Kathimerini poll – yearn for his victory. There have not been such high hopes placed on an incoming president since John F. Kennedy. Both McCain critics and, disarmingly, Obama himself refer to his candidacy in terms of a messiah-like image. Will we get this «messiah» and will he deliver for us? There are reasons for caution on both counts. Private polling for Obama apparently suggests that a good number of key states are much closer than the public polls suggest. That’s why he’s gone back to campaigning in them. More generally, there is the fear that some voters are «shy» of admitting they’re Democrats but they’re not willing to vote for a black president. Their nightmare is of the Tom Bradley experience in California: The black governor was well ahead in the polls to the end, but actually lost the election. If the «messiah» comes, will he deliver? McCain says Obama «is running to be the redistributionist-in-chief» and that Obama «is running to spread the wealth.» He even equates Obama with socialism. Obama promises tax rises for those earning over $250,000 and pledges to tackle the gross inadequacies of the current healthcare system, where an incredible 45 million people have no health insurance. These are commendable objectives, but their social impact is likely to be much less radical than the early campaign rhetoric suggested. Greek voters should be familiar with the vacuity of the one-word campaign slogan «Change.» In foreign policy, Obama’s commitment to multilateralism and his talk of the USA’s «soft power» seem like manna from heaven to Europeans. Troops out of Iraq and dialogue with Iran appear to end Bush’s ill-conceived and dangerous unilateralism. His recent campaign comments about maintaining a presence in Iraq and the need to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the «war on terror» give more ambiguous signals, however. A confident President Obama should provide a much needed boost to Atlanticism: listening to allies, building a consensus, and then acting for shared interests. If so, Atlanticism will be back in fashion and Europeans will think more of the «West» and what it can do together. Europeans will be patient and pray for the moral leadership of a John F. Kennedy, while prepared to settle for a Clinton. If Obama only just wins, though, and feels the need to appease critics at home, his own sense of direction might be further weakened by international events beyond his control. The presidency of Jimmy Carter, with its confidence sapped, comes to mind. For Greece, the prospect of Joe Biden as vice president offers a pro-Greek stance on Cyprus. Biden knows Cyprus well and has clear ideas on it. A President Obama, winning friends in the Middle East, may be more able to apply pressure on Turkey. But, in a climate of fear and recession, would the EU be ready to support new initiatives with stronger promises on Turkish entry? Obama for a while could be more popular in Europe than McDonalds. The fear, however, is that once we’ve digested the impact of a new style president, we might still feel a little empty. Obama needs to have the confidence to act according to his true instincts and make a real difference. Kevin Featherstone is the director of the Hellenic Observatory and Eletherios Venizelos professor of contemporary Greek studies at the London School of Economics.