Obama Takes Europe by Storm

Americans enthralled by Barack Obama's sudden rise to the top of the political heap will have plenty of company when they tune in later today for the New Hampshire primary results.

Europeans, who typically have little interest in U.S. presidential primary contests, are likely to tune in as well.

"After Iowa much of Europe wants to know more about Barack Obama," said Christoph von Marschall, Washington bureau chief for Germany's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper and author of the book "Barack Obama, The Black Kennedy."

"Most Europeans and certainly many Germans know very little about Obama, but he's really captured their imaginations."

Obama's popularity has soared in Europe since his startling win in Iowa, with European newspapers and television networks from Stockholm to Berlin to London now filled with images of the Illinois senator.

In Paris, stories about Obama replaced President Nicolas Sarkozy's love life on the front pages of the newspapers Le Figaro, Libération and Le Monde, which on the day after the Iowa caucuses proclaimed: "The Greater America opts for the New Man."

At a news conference today in Paris, Sarkozy said he's also following the U.S. elections closely. In between fielding questions about his romance with French model Carla Bruni, Sarkozy said he has met with Obama, but would not hint at who he was backing. "It's not me who decides," he told reporters.

London dailies followed suit. "Race reshaped by the son of Kenyan goatherd," blared The Times of London, which, along with the Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Guardian, featured large photos of Obama in front-page articles. Multipage spreads adorned the inside of top-selling British newspapers.

Here in Germany, where many were surprised to see Sen. Hillary Clinton place third in Iowa, major newspapers printed headlines comparing Obama with John F. Kennedy, still a revered figure in Germany and particularly in Berlin. A headline in The Berliner Morgenpost this weekend screamed "The New Kennedy." The tabloid newspaper Bild, the largest selling news daily in the country, went with, "This Black American Has Become the New Kennedy!"

As long lines of tourists gathered outside Berlin's Reichstag building today for daily tours, many people seemed eager to discuss U.S. politics.

"I think he is doing something quite special in America," Kerstin Schafer, a 38-year-old housewife from the eastern German city of Dessau, said of Obama. "I think many Germans see him as a better candidate than the others."

Anselm Unger, a 52-year-old machinist from Berlin, says he thinks Obama is exciting to watch, but said, "Mrs. Clinton is a very strong person with a lot of experience in these situations, so it may be too soon to say if Mr. Barack will win."

Although Obama's newfound popularity in western Europe underscores his broad appeal, it is somewhat surprising. According to his staff, he has made just three trips abroad while in the Senate, visiting a total of 14 countries. That included one visit to western or central Europe — a brief stopover in London.

But Obama routinely addresses America's declining popularity in the world. "The day I'm inaugurated, America will look at itself differently, and the world will look at America differently," he said Monday while campaigning in New Hampshire.

Observers say his sharp rise in popularity in Europe is fueled by more than his staunch opposition to the war in Iraq, which has long been unpopular in Europe.

Gary Smith, executive director of the American Academy in Berlin, says that although Obama is still far from the White House, he's accentuating what's good in American politics — if not in America itself, particularly as the end of the Bush era looms.

"Europeans are tired of the image of a divided America," said Smith. Obama's rise "gives a sense of hope and optimism of a more inclusive America that is likely to mend fences abroad, particularly in Europe."

Europeans have long followed U.S. presidential elections closely and polls here consistently show that they believe a change at the White House will have a positive effect on the United States and on America's relationships with other countries. Germans, in particular, have kept a watchful eye on U.S. political events after the rise of American influence after World War II.

But many people note a real surge of interest in this year's primary contests, mainly because several presidential contenders come to the race with global recognition.

Rudy Giuliani's international profile soared after the attacks on New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Because Bill Clinton was universally loved in much of Europe, Hillary Clinton attained instant star status when she declared her candidacy for the White House. And now Barack Obama, the strongest black candidate for president in decades, is catching on in Europe because many here are startled to see a black candidate do well in American politics.

Indeed, much of the buzz surrounding Obama centers on his race.

"Iowa is a U.S. state that has never elected an African-American to any office," the Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung wrote in an opinion piece. The paper's front page included a large photo of Obama beneath the headline "Whites select black."

Obama's race "is the kind of the thing that will certainly arouse interest" in Europe, says von Marschall, the German author and journalist. He says the fact that America is considering electing a black president is striking for Europeans who often view the United States — and sometimes their own countries — as still racially divided. By voting for a minority candidate, "Americans are closer to doing something that is still unimaginable in much of Europe."