Small World After All: Obama-Clinton Battle Stirs Global Debate

'Obamania' hits Europe as people across the globe debate U.S. election.

March 25, 2008 — -- The 2008 presidential election is eight months away and yet in corners of the world near and far, people are extraordinarily attuned to the political battle for the world's most powerful office.

In Europe, television and radio stations, blogs, newspapers and magazines provide daily coverage of the primaries and debates, even delving into the arcane power held by the Democratic superdelegates.

Democratic Battle Heightens Interest

Attracting the most interest is the historic nature of the Democratic candidates -- a tall, young, charismatic, Harvard-educated black senator and a high-powered female senator and former first lady vying for the White House.

Less is known about the presumptive Republican nomination, Arizona Sen. John McCain, though that is changing given his recent overseas tour.

While the personalities of the candidates are attracting the most attention, the issues at stake -- the economy, the war in Iraq and the environment -- are of global interest.

Perhaps more profoundly, the 2008 election is viewed as a chance for a new, fresh American image, in a world where nearly every poll sees America's image dragging.

"Since 2002, the image of the United States has declined in most parts of the world," said Richard Wike of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

"The decision to go into Iraq unilaterally, the ongoing war, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the opposition to the Kyoto Protocol has deepened anti-American sentiment in much of Europe and the Middle East," Wike said.

'Obamamania' Hits Europe

Credible public opinion data on views from abroad about the U.S. election is hard to come by. But newspapers and anecdotes suggest the U.S. election is being discussed just as hotly in cafes, pubs, taxicabs and tea rooms around the world as it is in the United States.

From France to India, Britain to Indonesia, and Canada to Africa, people around the world are expressing an extraordinary level of excitement and interest in the U.S. election.

Across the pond in London, the U.S. election is "the No. 1 topic of conversation at dinner parties, at think tank meetings and in taxicabs," writes British columnist Irwin Stelzer this month in The Weekly Standard.

Clinton has many European admirers dating back to her first lady years and former President Clinton remains a very popular figure.

But the European media are gripped by "Obamamania."

Last month Germany's weekly magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story featuring Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., with the headline: "The Messiah Factor: Barack Obama and the Longing for a New America."

"Britains as well as most people outside the United States sense that this is an historic election and one that carries import beyond just the question of who occupies the White House for the next four years," said William Barnard, U.K. chair of Democrats Abroad.

This year the Democratic National Committee held its first Global Democratic Primary to coincide with the Super Tuesday voting Feb. 5.

In London, more than 1,800 Democrats crammed into Porchester Hall -- more than double the number of people who showed up in 2004, Barnard said. Almost 23,000 Democrats in 164 countries cast their ballots, giving Obama a victory with 66 percent of the expatriate vote.

McCain Visits France, London

In France, a recent CSA/Le Parisien poll said the French are split between Obama and Clinton.

Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope" has been translated into French and has been a hit. Clinton's autobiography was also translated, but isn't doing as well.

"People are very enthusiastic about Obama because we have a mixed population in France and we have racial and ethnic problems so it's a source of great excitement for young Frenchmen," said Denis Lacorne, professor of political studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

Obama's candidacy is being compared to former President Kennedy.

Few Americans have enjoyed a warmer embrace than Kennedy's June 1961 visit to France. The better Parisian shops sold silk scarves embroidered with Jackie and French newspapers swooned at the first lady's grasp of the French language.

With France's early refusal to back the war against Iraq, the Bush administration ushered in an era of francophobia in Washington, D.C., worse than it's ever been, Lacorne said. Cafeterias on Capitol Hill replaced french fires on menus with "freedom fries."

"The French realize that there would be change whoever wins the election," Lacorne said. "It would be a break from the Bush administration, even if it's a Republican."

McCain's swing through France and London last week after his overseas visit to Iraq was seen as a welcome signal that the soon-to-be Republican nominee is serious about improving foreign relations.

"Even as a hawk on Iraq, which wouldn't be well understood or appreciated in France because no one in France is favorable to this war, he is seen as someone who is concerned to listen to European allies and that's considered a big plus from the old Bush ways," Lacorne said.

McCain's opposition to Guantanamo Bay and the torture of detainees and his support of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change are also viewed favorably.

'New Face of America to the Middle East'

In the Arab world, Obama has emerged as an early favorite.

"I think Obama has developed a great interest in the region. He presents a new face of America to the Middle East and to the world at large," Hafed Al Ghwell, a Libyan-American with the Dubai School of Government, told ABC News in January.

"His perspective on foreign policy, his statements, his charisma and the fact that he is of mixed background, I think that is an incredibly stimulating image for a lot of people."

"Barack Obama is my favorite," said Fadi Salem, a Syrian computer engineer living in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "For me as a foreigner I think it restores what democracy is. He has a multicultural background, he's from an ethnic minority, he is capable of bridging gaps either inside the United States or with people around the world."

Iran is a mixed picture.

Alongside some popular support for Obama there is a nostalgia for the Clinton presidency, seen as a time of relative warming relations between Iran and the United States.

McCain's anti-Iran rhetoric -- he once jokingly sang "Bomb, Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" on the campaign trail -- is viewed by some as a continuation of the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy.

From Dharamsala to Mumbai to Karachi

In Dharamsala, India, some say they'd vote for Obama if they could.

"Obama is the way that the U.S. should act," said Kalsag Phuntsok, 37, a math teacher.

In Mumbai, India, Obama's diplomatic approach is looked upon favorably.

"I read somewhere about how Obama would deal with America's enemies and he said something as simple as he would sit and talk to them, get their point of view, debate, discuss. And in some ways people who have been in politics for so long are kind of just playing the game of politics and not stopping to listen, 'can we talk this out?' And maybe that will work, maybe not, but it's a new fresh approach and is an exciting approach and I would definitely vote for him if I was a U.S. citizen," said Tanya Pretap, 30, a mother and teacher.

In Karachi, Pakistan, Asim Butt, 29, an artist, also likes Obama.

"He does represent change and he's young," Butt said.

In Iraq, a third of Iraqis said the U.S. election and change in administration will make things better for Iraq, according to ABC News' latest Iraq poll.

A plurality -- 39 percent -- think it will make no difference and 27 percent think the change in administration will make things worse.

Global Roots

In Indonesia, Obama's roots are a source of pride.

"He's going to be great if he becomes president of the United States because he has half blood of Kenyan and also Indonesian. We like to hear about the good things about Indonesians because what I hear about Indonesians, especially in the United States, is they usually think badly about Indonesians. So maybe if he becomes the president, it will make everything clear about our name," said Jakarta resident Madeline.

In Africa, Obama's roots in Kenya are well-known.

His father was a goat-herder-turned-economist from western Kenya. Though Obama never spent much time in Kenya, many Africans claim him as one of their own.

Yohannes Atoshen, an American taxicab driver in Washington, D.C., originally from the African nation Eritrea, said the recent controversies about Obama's pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have hurt Obama, but argued the senator has bounced back after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's endorsement.

"They are shifting the superdelegates to Obama," Atoshen said.

The historical aspects of the Democratic candidacies are also being felt in South America.

"It would be brilliant to have a black president. It's fulfilling the dream of Martin Luther," said Cesar de Menezes, a journalist in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"We have a huge population of people of African descent in Brazil -- all the way from the north to the south. It's important for us to see the U.S. having a black president."

Intense Canadian Interest

North of the U.S. border, the 2008 election has fascinated Canadians, said Edward Greenspon, editor in chief of The Globe and Mail, a daily newspaper.

"Canadians always have a strong interest in U.S. politics due to our proximity and our large consumption of U.S. media," Greenspon said.

With Canadian troops committed to the NATO mission in Afghanistan until 2011, the country has a deep interest in U.S. foreign and security policy, and also its economic policy. Canada and the United States are each other's No. 1 trading partner.

As in other parts of the world, Canada too seems fascinated by the Democratic contest.

"The interest in Obama and Clinton is absolutely intense to the point where we have a minority government that is in danger of falling which would precipitate an election and Obama and Clinton are trumping that story some days on the front page," said John Ibbitson, the Globe and Mail's Washington columnist. "There is just an amazing level of interest, such as I've never ever seen before as a journalist in an election campaign."

Ibbitson tells the story of a recent trip to Toronto where he was having breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel.

"At every single table around me, they were talking about nothing but the presidential election campaign," he said.

"We've had famously friendly presidents and prime ministers such as Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney who inked the free trade agreement back in 1988," Ibbitson said. "George Bush and Jean Chretien clearly disliked each other strongly, especially when Canada decided not to go into the Iraq War, and the relationships between the two countries went into a deep freeze so it matters a lot to Canadians who the president is under any circumstances but this election campaign is unprecedented."

Diplomatic relations with Canada became a focal point of the U.S. election for a couple days when a leaked Canadian memo suggested Obama's campaign had signaled his rhetoric against the North American Free Trade Agreement was political posturing.

"It's been said in Canada the greatest contribution we could make to Western civilization would be to allow the United States to annex us guaranteeing Democratic administrations in perpetuity," Ibbitson said jokingly.

Greenspon pointed out that singer/songwriter Neil Young, a Canadian by birth, recently justified his interest in the U.S. election by saying they describe the president as the leader of the "free world" after all.

With files from ABC News' foreign correspondents around the world: Margaret Conley, Sonia Gallego, Karen Russo, Lara Setrakian and Nicholas Schifrin. ABC News' Peyton Craighill also contributed reporting.

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