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Obamamania in full flight before Europe tour

In Berlin, where John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all made famous speeches, the Democratic presidential hopeful will find himself stepping into perhaps another iconic moment.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Europe is about to give Barack Obama one of the grandest of stages for statesmanship.

In this city where John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all made famous speeches, Obama will find himself stepping into perhaps another iconic moment Thursday as his superstar charisma meets German adoration live in shadows of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. He then travels to Paris and London where he can expect to be greeted with similar adulation.

It's not only Obama's youth, eloquence and energy that have stolen hearts across the Atlantic. For Europeans, there have always been two Americas: one of cynicism, big business and bullying aggression, another of freedom, fairness and nothing-is-impossible dynamism.

Embodies hope for change in America
If President Bush has been seen as the embodiment of that first America, Obama has raised expectations of a chance for the nation to redeem itself in the role that — at various times through history — Europe has loved, respected and relied upon.

"Americans need a change — and what's good for America is good for the whole world," said Maike Smerling, a physician who was born and raised in the former East Germany.

Ioannis Ioannidis, a 27-year-old salesman in Stockholm, Sweden, said Obama represented the American ideals of "We the People" and of an equal chance at success for all.

"He's different from other politicians. He represents minorities and he's down to earth and smart," said Ioannidis. "He comes from nowhere. He wasn't born into it, and it's got nothing to do with what family he's from."

Beyond his electric personality, Obama is popular among Europeans because he hits all the right notes on the issues that are important to them.

In his first major speech on foreign policy, Obama last week vowed to fight climate change, stress diplomacy in dealing with Iran and produce a clear exit strategy for Iraq — all issues where Bush angered Europe by taking an opposite tack.

Evoking a time when Europe looked to America with gratitude, he called for a 21st-century Marshall Plan to alleviate world misery because "that can be our best investment in increasing the common security of the entire world."

Polls from Germany, France and Britain — the only three countries on Obama's European tour — show the presumptive Democratic candidate an overwhelming favorite over his rival, Republican John McCain.

Some experts have a simple explanation for Europe's Obamamania, and Josef Braml, an America expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, put it bluntly: "He's not Bush."

But there appears to be a deeper mechanism behind Europe's palpable excitement over Obama than just a break from the acrimonious Bush years. After all, it's difficult to imagine the continent being swept by "Clinton-mania" or "Edwards-mania" had one of Obama's main rivals for the Democratic nomination prevailed.

For Europeans, perhaps, it isn't just that Obama isn't Bush but that he's come to be seen as the "anti-Bush" — a figure who represents such a startling contrast to the outgoing president that there's a sense the whole Washington power structure might be purged of much that Europeans see as wrong with American leadership.

"The black JFK"
These are great expectations that may very well be dashed if Obama is elected and is thrown into the intricate realities of the Beltway game — but for now European hope is prevailing over its habitual tendency toward cynicism.

"Obama ... projects the vision of a better America," said Georg Schild, an expert on German-American relations at the University of Tuebingen.

It's difficult to gauge how race is playing out in European attitudes toward Obama, but there is no denying that color is a big ingredient of the Obama magic here. One German newspaper has anointed the candidate "Der Schwarze JFK" — the black JFK.

But the "feel-good" factor that many pundits have identified among educated white Americans in their support for Obama may at least in part be behind Europeans' eagerness to embrace a black U.S. presidential candidate. All three countries on Obama's European tour have experienced ethnic flare-ups in recent years. And despite large minority populations across the continent, there are only a sprinkling of nonwhite legislators in European parliaments — let alone candidates to be a national leader.

Given Europe's troubled history with its own minorities, Obamamania may be an expedient way for some Europeans to convince themselves they are racially tolerant while brushing aside ethnic tensions at home.

"It's a vicarious thrill," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe Program. "After they've switched off their TV screens they're not going to go out and find a black candidate to put forward to lead their own country."

Above all, Europeans seem to sense that America is on the brink of a fundamental change — and see the protagonist of that transformation in Obama.

Such is the sense of the importance of the upcoming American election that France has given birth to a "Comite Francais de Soutien a Barack Obama," or French Committee to Support Barack Obama.

It includes famous figures such as Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, fashion designer Sonia Rykiel and philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy. Other politicians, artists and academics, as well as ordinary French citizens, are among its ranks.

"These elections have repercussions on the whole world," said committee president Samuel Slovit. "What happens in the United States will affect us here. It's the result of political globalization."