LONDON — The Barack Obama Magical Mystery Tour played like a rock-star fantasy, complete with rabid fans and great reviews.
It even pissed a few people off.
The coverage of apparent overseas Obamamania peaked over the weekend as the presumptive Democratic nominee flew back to the U.S. following a headline-making tour of Europe and the Middle East.
The weeklong tour, which saw Obama visit Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Germany, France and the U.K., dominated foreign media coverage, with the majority of commentators dubbing the visit a success.
“From Obama’s vantage point, I don’t think it could have gone much better,” Stryker McGuire, Newsweek’s London-based contributing editor, told Daily Variety. “The experience gap between him and McCain had been really quite serious prior to his trip. His reception in Europe, however, showed how much he represents a real change to a world that is very anxious to see America change.”
In the final leg of Obama’s trip, as he met with former U.K. premier Tony Blair, current prime minister Gordon Brown and opposition leader of the Conservative party David Cameron in London on Saturday.
Obama charmed Brit journos with an understated press conference outside 10 Downing Street, as the traveling press corps were forced to sit on the pavement during the brief confab at which Obama offered support for the beleaguered Brown, who has been blighted by low popularity and repeated calls from even some members of his own party to step aside. “You’re always more popular before you’re actually in charge of things,” Obama stated somewhat portentously. “Once you’re responsible, you’re going to make some people unhappy.”
The reserved climax still made the front pages and led the news bulletins of all of Blighty’s media outlets. Many of the U.K.’s broadsheets also ran special sections in their weekly editions about the Illinois senator.
The Sunday Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., posed the question, “Is America ready for a black president?” while in the left-leaning Independent, foreign editor Raymond Whitaker wrote, “Mr. Obama now has the photographs and footage to contradict anyone who questions his foreign policy credentials.”
Popular Brit tabloid the Sun, another part of Murdoch’s media empire, scored a typically eccentric scoop by landing an interview with Obama’s half-brother Bernard Obama who runs a car parts firm in Kenya.
It was all a far cry from Obama’s momentous speech in Berlin on Thursday in front of a huge crowd. There, Obama clearly illustrated his ability to work his magic on German crowds as easily as he can Stateside, bringing downtown Berlin to a standstill as more than 200,000 people thronged the city’s main thoroughfare and surrounded the city’s Victory Column monument. Obama dominated German TV screens Thursday night as more than 5 million viewers tuned in to watch the only public speech in his weeklong foreign tour.
While both the German public and media celebrated Obama’s pop-star status, his recent comments that he would press European NATO partners for more troops for the unpopular Afghanistan mission made many skeptical of his ultimate intentions.
Yet Obama remains by far the favored candidate for the U.S. presidency, with a recent poll showing that 76% of Germans prefer him over John McCain.
In France, Obama generated vivid reactions from Gallic media, including national newspapers Le Monde and Liberation, after spending a mere afternoon in France, visiting President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday.
Le Monde pointed out that “Obamamania of both (the French and British) governments has been slightly overshadowed” by Obama’s choice to spend more time in Berlin than in the U.K. and in Gaul.
According to the newspaper, “Obama chose to show himself the least possible time in France to avoid John Kerry’s fate at the polls, as the senator from Massachusetts had been stigmatized as ‘too French’ by his rivals.”
But Liberation wrote that Obamamania had nevertheless affected every layer of society, with even the French Communist party succumbing to the candidate’s charm in spite of its deep-rooted anti-Americanism, and minorities in Parisian suburbs proclaiming him a vector of change. For French folks, the paper pointed out, Obama’s main draw is that he appears to be the diametric opposite of current U.S. prexy George W. Bush.
Even Sarkozy, no stranger to celeb attention given his high-profile romance and marriage to model-singer Carla Bruni, made a point to assert his closeness to Obama. “He’s my friend,” the French president was quoted as saying in both Liberation and Le Figaro. “I’m the only one in France who knows him.”
In Spain, there was certainly evidence of Obama enthusiasm, but Spanish coverage of Obama’s trip never reached the level of fervor seen in other countries.
That may have been a case of sour grapes.
“If Obama goes to Berlin, why not Spain?” Spanish opposition leader Mariano Rajoy asked Friday, voicing widespread, though not raging, disappointment about Obama having skipped Spain.
Also, Spain’s virulently anti-Bush media still needs convincing that Obama means real change.
“Obama faces large challenges to become president,” right-wing newspaper ABC warned Friday. And El Pais, Spain’s leftish establishment paper, charged Obama with flip-flopping over Iraq withdrawal, Jerusalem and climate change.
In Italy, the Berlin stop of Obama’s tour grabbed headlines alongside the latest controversy over Silvio Berlusconi’s legal woes, which the Italo premier, media mogul and staunch Bush ally just solved by giving himself parliamentary immunity.
“Obama inflames Berlin,” trumpeted La Repubblica, which compared Obama overlooking the massive crowd from Berlin’s Victory Column to the angel Cassiel in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire.”
Largely lethargic Italo media almost ignored that Rome was not an Obama stop, a fact not lost on Murdoch’s Sky Italia TG24 news, which instead managed to intercept the U.S. presidential hopeful in Berlin while he was ending his jog to ask him why Italy wasn’t on his itinerary.
“Buongiorno,” Obama beamed to the Sky Italia anchor, adding that he could not take questions because he was all sweaty, and then, when asked anyway, said, “I love Italy; it’s a beautiful country. I promise to come as soon as possible,” as he ran off.
In the Middle East, where Obama began his tour, his reception was largely greeted with a typically world-weary shrug of the shoulders.
A 24-hour stop in Israel, during which the senator visited Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, paid tribute to the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel. His meeting with an assortment of Israeli politicos was counterposed by an hourlong session with Palestinian Authority prexy Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
While Israeli journos expressed relative satisfaction with Obama’s attempt to reaffirm his pro-Israel credentials, their Arab colleagues seemed a little underwhelmed.
In downtown Amman, for example, there was little public evidence of Obama’s presence save for heightened security measures in the Jordanian capital. Pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat commentator Ali El-Saleh wrote that “Obama did not bring any new ideas,” following his meeting with Palestinian prexy Abbas, “but emerged from their meeting happy.”
Back in Europe, others also voiced notes of dissatisfaction with the carefully stage-managed tour. Of the 40 accredited journos traveling with Obama, which included three U.S. network anchors, only a handful were actually members of foreign media outlets.
Whether Obama’s domestic campaign benefited from the international love-in is uncertain.
“Obama’s people don’t know how much of a bounce they’ll get from this trip in the U.S.,” stated Newsweek’s McGuire. “Obama has said himself that there might actually be a dip in the polls because he’s been away from a week. But in the mid- to long term, this might prove to be a brilliant thing for him because, as the impact of it sinks in, it might benefit him with some of the voters who may have had doubts about him.”
(Ed Meza, John Hopewell, Elsa Bertet and Nick Vivarelli all contributed to this report.)