When President Obama visited Poland last year, Prime Minister Donald Tusk told his American guest, “We feel that you are one of us.”
He didn’t go as far today, at least not publicly, following a meeting with Mitt Romney. But former Polish president Lech Walesa, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, did give his seal of approval to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
“I wish you to be successful because this success is needed to the United States, of course, but to Europe and the rest of the world, too,” Walesa said through a translator. “Gov. Romney, get your success. Be successful!”
The endorsement of a U.S. presidential challenger, unusual in its boldness, was particularly eyebrow-raising in light of Walesa’s refusal to meet with Obama on his visit to Poland one year ago.
Walesa, the former leader of the Solidarity movement that helped bring down communism in Poland, cited scheduling conflicts at the time for why the two could not meet, though Walesa’s absence was widely interpreted in local news reports as a snub.
So what impact will Walesa’s embrace of Romney have on the 2012 presidential race? Little, experts say, although it does symbolize a real sense of discontentment among many Poles and Polish-Americans over Obama’s handling of the bilateral alliance during his term.
“This is a powerful statement on Polish relations with the U.S. right now,” Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, a nonpartisan Polish educational and cultural group, said of the Walesa endorsement. “Poles in Poland are frustrated with the Obama administration.”
Tops among the frustrations is an unfulfilled Obama promise from 2008 to add Poland to a list of visa waiver countries, a move that would allow freer flow of travel to and from the U.S. for families, business people and tourists.
Some Poles are also miffed by Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia, a longtime Polish nemesis, and his backing away from parts of a George W. Bush-era missile defense plan.
“They had courageously agreed to provide sites for our anti-missile systems, only to be told, at the last hour, that the agreement was off. As part of the so-called reset in policy, missile defenses were sacrificed as a unilateral concession to the Russian government,” Romney said of the Poles at a VFW convention in Reno last week.
President Obama also recently angered some Poles and Polish-Americans when he referred to “a Polish death camp” — as opposed to a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland — during remarks at the White House in May. The gaffe drew swift and stern public rebukes from Polish leaders that later led to a letter of regret from Obama to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
“If he was ‘one of us’ he’d know that Germans did build those camps,” Storozynski said.
Still, there is ample evidence U.S.-Polish ties, particularly military, remain strong and that Walesa’s endorsement carries little sway.
Obama approved steps to assign a U.S. Air Force contingent to Poland beginning in 2013 as part of the NATO alliance. And both countries’ military leaders say they have close working relationships. (Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hosted the Polish Defense Minister last week in Washington.)
“Walesa is probably Poland’s best international statesman, not because he’s right, not because he knows what he’s talking about, but because of an aura of credibility from his past and the Nobel Prize. In many ways, he has more stature overseas than at home,” said John Micgiel, director of the East Central European Center at Columbia University.
“But what Mr. Walesa says doesn’t carry a lot of weight with Poles or Polish-Americans. He thinks differently than most people,” he said.
Solidarity, the trade union group Walesa once led, disassociated itself from his comments today, saying in a statement that “Mitt Romney supported attacks on trade unions and employees’ rights.”
“Solidarity was not involved in organizing Romney’s meeting with Walesa and did not invite him to visit Poland,” the group said.
What does all of this mean for U.S. voters of Polish descent?
“They don’t see Obama as their candidate, or Mitt Romney as their candidate,” Micgiel said. “They are truly swing votes.”