Why do Europeans adore president-elect Obama? Stupid question, you might say. He is young, handsome, smart, inspiring, educated, cosmopolitan, and above all, he promises a radical change from the most unpopular American administration in history. Compare that to his rival, John McCain, who talked about change, but to most Europeans represented the opposite.
And yet, there is something odd about the European mania for a black American politician, even as we all know that a black president or prime minister (let alone one whose middle name is Hussein) is still unthinkable in Europe. Or perhaps that is precisely the point.
Europeans have long been hospitable to black American stars. Think of Josephine Baker, who wowed Parisians and Berliners at a time when blacks could not vote -- or even use the same bathrooms as whites -- in many parts of the United States. Cities like Paris, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam offered refuge to black American jazz musicians, who needed a break from institutionalised racism. The same was true for other artists. The writer, James Baldwin, for example, found a home in France.
Since there were very few black people in Europe, the adoration of black American stars came easily. It made Europeans feel superior to Americans. They could pat themselves on the back for their lack of racial prejudice. When large numbers of people from non-western countries started to come to Europe after the 1960s, this proved to be something of an illusion. Still, the illusion was nice while it lasted, and Obamamania may contain an element of nostalgia, as well as hope.
The other reason for the European love affair with Obama is that he is seen as something more than an American. Unlike McCain, the all-American war hero, Obama looks like a citizen of the world. With his Kenyan father, he carries the glamour once associated with Third World liberation movements. Nelson Mandela inherited that glamour; indeed, he personified it. Some of that has rubbed off on Obama, too.
This did not help him much at home. Indeed, it could easily have hurt him. Republican populists have long tried to depict their Democratic opponents, often with great success, as "un-American" elitists, intellectuals, and the kind of guys who speak French -- in short, "Europeans".
When Obama made his rousing speech at the Berlin Tiergarten in July in front of 200,000 cheering Germans, his popularity ratings at home actually fell, especially in the old industrial rustbelt of Ohio and Pennsylvania. He came dangerously close to looking too "European". But the real Europeans loved him for it.
But the main reason for Obamamania may be more complex. It has become popular of late for European pundits and commentators to write the US off as a great power, let alone an inspirational one. In this, they have more or less followed public opinion.
Many liberal-minded people expressed, often sorrowfully, their deep disillusion with America during the dark Bush years. The nation they had grown up looking up to, as a beacon of hope -- a place that, while flawed, still inspired dreams of a better future and produced great movies, soaring buildings, rock'n'roll, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King -- had been hopelessly tainted by reckless wars, officially sanctioned torture, coarse chauvinism, and extraordinary political arrogance.
Others expressed the same disillusion with a gloating air of schadenfreude. At last, that big, arrogant, fatally seductive nation, which left the Old World in its shade for so long, had been brought to its knees. Watching the economic rise of China, Russia, and India, and the American debacles in the Middle East, it was tempting to believe that US power really did not count for very much anymore. A multi-polar world, many thought, would be vastly preferable to more Pax Americana.
Yet such projections could never entirely disguise a nagging anxiety. How many Europeans (or Asians, for that matter) would really be happier being subjected to the superior power of China or Russia? Under all the confident-sounding dismissals of US power, there is still some yearning to return to a more reassuring time, when the democratic world could lay its collective head on Uncle Sam's broad shoulders.
This, too, is probably an illusion. Too much has changed since the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, and the Cuban missile crisis. But I do not believe that the American dream has died in Europe quite yet. Obamamania seems to have revived it.
Obama's election has demonstrated that things are still achievable in the US that remain unthinkable elsewhere. As long as this is so, the US, as first among equals, can still be looked up to as the defender of our freedoms.
Europeans -- and others -- may regard China's rise with awe, and hope to find a modus vivendi with Russia, but without the hopes inspired by that extraordinary republic, which represents the worst and the best of our battered western world, we would all be much worse off. In their hearts, most Europeans know this. That is why they are going crazy over Barack Obama's election.