Washington, DC often has a provincial feel to it, but every four years, it gets a dose of glamour. Hundreds of thousands (including yours truly) will watch President Barack Obama’s second inauguration ceremony on the Mall this Monday. The city’s buttoned down movers and shakers will shine in festive outfits at the inaugural balls. And just like four years ago, people all over the world look to the U.S. capital and speculate about what another four years of Obama as President means for them.
In 2009, the expectations for the Democrat in the White House were high: He had promised to end the Iraq War and close the detention camp in Guantánamo. He wanted to make peace with America’s enemies and join international efforts to combat climate change. Especially hopeful were Europeans, who had become estranged from their transatlantic ally during the Bush years.
When Obama embarked on his first trip to Europe in April 2009, I traveled with him. The visit was a success, but also a reminder of the limits of American power and of fault lines in the transatlantic relationship. At the G20 summit in London, China’s President Hu Jintao emerged as a key player.
Obama could not convince the leaders of Germany and France to prop up their economies with a stimulus package like the one he had just pushed through Congress. In Strasbourg, French and German youth celebrated him like a rock star, yet their leaders could not be swayed to commit more troops to Afghanistan at the Nato Summit.
The visual highlight of the trip was Prague. The Czechs were more sober than their Western European neighbors. The people I spoke with wanted to hear what their American guest had to say before they cheered him on. In front of Prague’s historic castle, Obama spoke of his vision of a nuclear-free world. But North Korea had just thwarted this vision by launching a long-distance rocket that same morning. This is my feature from the trip.
Four years later, the record is mixed. The U.S. image in the world has recovered from the low of the Bush years – also due to the efforts of Obama’s former rival Hillary Clinton who tirelessly traveled the world as Secretary of State (see my analysis of her legacy). The Iraq War is over and the war in Afghanistan is coming to a close – though peace is still out of reach on the Hindu Kush.
The Uyghur activist Omer Kanat prepared the guest room in his house in Virginia in vain, because Congress did not want Guantánamo inmates to be relocated to the mainland. (see my profiles of five Americans who were still waiting for change a year after Obama’s 2008 election). The crisis over Iran’s nuclear program is far from resolved, and the Obama administration was late to react to the Arab Spring and never captured its full potential.
The U.S. did try to capture the potential of the Asia-Pacific region – to the chagrin of European governments who were wary that the “pivot to Asia” would divert attention from the transatlantic relationship. In my opinion, there is no reason for panic: the pivot is a clever label, but no substantial shift in priorities. See my commentary on why the U.S. has always been a Pacific power.
It is also not true that America stopped looking to Europe during the Obama years. In some ways, the opposite was the case. When I arrived in the U.S. in 2007, my home country Germany only featured in American news reports in connection with its Nazi history or Knut, the famous polar bear at the Berlin zoo.
Two years later, U.S. media reported about Germany’s solar industry and how “Kurzarbeit” (work-sharing) kept employment up in difficult economic times. Today, hardly a week goes by without reports about how Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and her fellow European leaders try to navigate the Euro crisis.
In 2009, I heard Merkel speak in front of both Chambers of Congress – a rare honor for a foreign guest. In 2011, I reported about Merkel’s state visit during which Obama welcomed her with a 19-gun salute and awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yes, Europeans like to complain that Americans don’t understand how the EU works (neither do many Europeans). We can forgive them for not remembering the capitals of Estonia or Slovenia. The EU has 27 members, the U.S. has 50 states! I for sure could not place Iowa’s capital Des Moines (see Part 6: The Midwest) on the map before I came here.
By now my personal map of the U.S. has fewer and fewer gaps. I have visited between 30 and 34 states (Does stopping for a cup of coffee in New Haven, Connecticut and in Athens, Georgia count? What about driving through Rhode Island or getting stuck overnight at the airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during a snowstorm?)
If I have learned one thing in the past five years, then it is that the American President does not just deal with the world out there, but with the different worlds within his own country! A country of which I’m still hoping to see more. See you later, Kansas, Montana, Kentucky and Hawaii!