Even Bill Clinton, whose name has the power to attract a lot of listeners, could, as president, attract far fewer people when he appeared in Berlin in 1994. He addressed about 50,000, a quarter of the crowd that heard the senator from Illinois on Thursday.
Clearly, there is something about Obama that acts like a magnet, pulling the hearts and minds of people who live in what is for Obama a foreign country. Trying to decide exactly what lies behind this magnetism is not easy.
Yes, Obama is the first American of African decent to have a reasonable chance of becoming president, but race alone would not draw 200,000 Germans. Furthermore, Obama doesn’t stress racial issues any more than other issues an American politician has to deal with.
Yes, he is articulate, but he isn’t the only American who speaks well. Yes, he’s handsome and has a young family, but again, these factors on their own would not draw a huge crowd abroad.
Perhaps all of the above factors are combining with something that Germans and other Europeans feel about the United States. Perhaps Obama personifies a different kind of United States, a country that differs from the one that President George W. Bush personifies. Perhaps Obama represents the United States as they would like it to be, a United States that inspires more than commands. The Germans at the Victory Column in Tiergarten Park may see in Obama an American who can bring people together, regardless of their colour, regardless of their religion, regardless of their nationality.
Indeed, his speech touched on this theme. “The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christians and Muslims and Jews cannot stand.”
Obama would be the first person to advise Americans, Berliners and everyone else not to start treating him as if he had won the presidential election.
He knows he has a lot of work to do. First, the Democratic party has to hold its convention and he has to choose a vice-presidential candidate.
He also knows that he has to campaign against Senator John McCain, who the Republicans will select as their candidate. McCain might have to overcome the disadvantage of running with a party that is stuck with an unpopular record, but he is, by any standard, a thoughtful and experienced politician.
Whether Democrats or Republicans occupy the White House in 2009 is a decision, of course, that will be made by Americans, not by Germans — or Canadians. American voters may have numerous factors in their minds when they cast their votes, not just Obama’s popularity with Berliners.
What is clear is that Obama, even before the presidential campaign has begun, has had an impact upon the nature of American politics. He represents a generational shift, a change from the baby boomers represented by Clinton and Bush. Regardless of whether Obama wins or loses, the upcoming campaign is going to be fascinating.”