Mitt Romney is ideologically unacceptable even to the conservatives.

Anyone who saw the thousands gathered by the Victory Column in Berlin one summer’s day in July 2008 and heard their ecstatic whoops and applause might be forgiven for thinking they had gathered to see a rock star, rather than listen to a speech by the then US presidential hopeful, Barack Obama.

The reception to that speech, which touched on everything from America’s post-war relationship with Germany to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, nuclear disarmament and climate change, was rapturous, harking back to iconic speeches that previous US leaders had made in the city.

“Ich bin ein Berliner,” John F. Kennedy had declared in 1963 to a gathering of over 1,00,000, proclaiming his admiration for the “hope and the determination” of West Berlin.

Twenty years later, in an equally iconic moment, Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down the wall.”

Polls ahead of the 2008 presidential election showed Obama as the overwhelming favourite in Germany, as he was across Europe.

According to a Gallup world poll that July, 62 per cent of Germans supported Obama, with just 10 per cent favouring his then rival, John McCain.

Eurasia Group analyst Carsten Nickel attributes this to a combination of his personal charisma — reminiscent of the presidents who had visited the city before him (several newspapers dubbed Obama “the New Kennedy”), and his perceived distance from the rift created between Germany and the previous Republican administration, largely over the invasion of Iraq.

When George W Bush visited Berlin in 2002, thousands took to the streets to protest, and approval ratings remained abysmally low for his administration right up to the end (it received an 8 per cent approval rating in Germany in a 2007 Gallup poll). “Germans generally love America and its presidents, so with someone unpopular like George Bush there was 8 years of almost disappointed love from the German side,” says Nickel.

ROMNEY’S STANDING

Several polls conducted in Germany in the years since 2008 have indicated a level of disappointment with Obama, particularly over his controversial drone attacks in Pakistan.

A Pew survey conducted earlier this year found a big slump in positive evaluations of the US, with those who said they viewed the country favourably dropping from 62 to 52 per cent over the past year, the largest decline for any European country surveyed.

But come the 2012 election, Obama remains the overwhelming favourite in Germany, enjoying a popularity that is replicated across Europe.

According to a YouGov poll published last week, 78 per cent of Germans preferred Obama over Mitt Romney (the results across six other European countries were similar, ranging from 81 per cent in Sweden to 69 per cent in Britain), in line with the figures from four years before. This clear lead for Obama may have less to do with Romney himself than with the gulf that separates the US political spectrum from its counterparts in Western Europe. (In Eastern Europe, surveys suggest that while Obama remains the preferred option, levels of support for him are somewhat lower.)

“Those perceived to be on the left in the US are relatively right wing, certainly for most Europeans,” says Joe Twyman, director of political and social research at YouGov.

“So when you have a George Bush or a Mitt Romney who is regarded to the right of someone who is seen as quite far from centre ground, then it’s seen as resolutely rightwing.”

Romney didn’t do much to ingratiate himself with Europe with some of his recent throwaway comments.

His criticism of the organisation of the London Olympics while on a visit to the Games strongly contrasted with the warmth with which Michelle Obama led the presidential delegation to the Games, and even provoked a rebuke from British Prime Minister David Cameron.

More recently, Romney managed to irk the Spanish public and government by suggesting that the country’s problems arose from government overspend (not the case, as it is private sector debt that is at the root of the problem).

The zeal with which the European public has embraced Obama has not been fully matched by its leadership.

French President Francois Hollande is pretty much the only one to have made his pro-Obama views plain: in remarks to Agence France-Presse, he quipped that as a socialist he should endorse Romney to hurt his presidential chances.

Merkel has been particularly cautious: she objected to Obama’s plans to speak before the Brandenburg Gate on his Berlin visit as inappropriate for a campaign event.

Obama made concerted attempts at the start of his term to strengthen ties with Germany.

During a visit to the US, Merkel was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which only one Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had received before her. Still, differences over Libya, Germany’s firm pro-austerity stance on the Euro Zone crisis, and the country’s determination to get out of nuclear power completely, have stood in the way of a closer relationship reminiscent of former days.

Further to the East, relations with the Czech Republic and Poland have also been under strain following the President’s decision to abandon plans for a missile defence system in Europe.

Such plans had been put in place by his predecessor in the face of opposition from Russia, as Clara Marina O’Donnell of the Centre for European Reform notes in a recent paper.

CAMERON’S RESPONSE

As for Romney, he seems bereft of allies in Europe — even in Conservative Britain. David Cameron’s trip to the US earlier this year provoked murmurings from Republican supporters when he gave the President vocal praise and support — at one point comparing him to Theodore Roosevelt in his ability to press “the reset button on the moral authority of the entire free world.”

“It seems like the party’s preference for Obama over Romney is inescapable,” wrote Oxford University historian of American history Tim Stanley in a recent blog for Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. He went on to ponder what Cameron would do if Romney were to be elected.

If European voters were to swarm US polling stations on November 6, there is no doubt as to which candidate would benefit most.

The clarity and scale of Barack Obama’s lead in the court of European public opinion contrasts with the knife-edge quality of the campaign back across the Atlantic.

As the US presidential campaign, bruised and battered by Hurricane Sandy, enters its final frenzy, the contrast between the Old World and the New World in matters of political culture is receiving fresh emphasis.

(blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on November 4, 2012)
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