Obama honeymoon ends in Europe

March 31, 2009

Robin Shepherd

– Robin Shepherd is Director, International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society. His areas of expertise are transatlantic relations, American foreign policy, Middle Eastern relations with the West, Russia, eastern Europe, NATO and the European Union. The views expressed are his own. –

It is to be hoped that President Obama has a developed sense of humour. The man heralded by many as the new Messiah of political renewal lands in London this week not to the chorus of approval he might have expected on his first official trip to Europe but to crowds roaring with anger and frustration at the global economic system which his country underpins.

It isn’t personal – yet. Few but the most unreasonable would hold the new American president responsible for woes that he inherited. Nonetheless, Obama campaigned on a platform of change. The implicit claim that his election was a grand, indeed poetic, instance of the time finding the man will be explicitly rejected – in Europe as well as at home – if he fails to deliver. We know he can give a pretty speech. But at the G-20 summit in London this week, that simply won’t be enough. For the first time at a major international gathering the blinding lights of international scrutiny will pour over Obama’s credentials on substance. His mettle is about to be tested.

It is true, of course, that there is tremendous accumulated goodwill towards the new American president in Europe. But time may yet show that much of that was merely the counterpoint to a hostility felt by so many against his predecessor. That, at least, is the risk. Obama can no longer play good cop to George Bush’s bad cop. He alone now has the stage, and when people are losing their jobs and homes they will want to see results. As leader of the Western world, the buck stops with him.

What applies to the economy will also apply to the great issues of international affairs. Obama will be given a chance over his new strategy on Afghanistan, though murmurings of discontent are not hard to detect in liberal-Left circles across the continent even now.

The idea that the war is unwinnable is gaining currency, especially in Britain. If, as the veteran political commentator Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian this week, Afghanistan comes to be perceived as a “Vietnam for slow learners”, then it is Obama who will be handed the dunce’s cap if things do not improve. The president’s sensible and predictable modifications to earlier intimations about a complete and quick withdrawal from Iraq have also raised eyebrows. America’s critics did not die with Bush.

The NATO summit which follows the G-20 will provide a welcome opportunity to grandstand, especially with the re-incorporation of France into the alliance’s strategic command. The new deal with Paris marks an important symbolic turnaround with a country which more than any other symbolised transatlantic rifts under Bush. Obama will bask in it.

But even at NATO, he will have to tread carefully. As relations with the western part of Europe improve, there are rising concerns in some parts that the administration’s mooted new deal with Russia could herald a partial climb down from some long-standing American strategies, not least to expand the sphere of democracy in Europe’s east. Appeasement of Putin and Medvedev is not the kind of change the Poles and the Balts are looking for.

But that, of course, is the nature of the beast. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Sometimes it really is a zero sum game, even for a leader with the charisma of Barack Obama.

The honeymoon is definitively over. Obama’s trip across the Atlantic marks the end of his transition from symbol of change to politician with a job to do. In the end, he will be judged like all the rest of them.

62 comments

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Obama promised change, he did not promise he could wave a wand and make everything better overnight.
It took George W. Bush eight years to get us into this mess and Obama is president, not its fairy godmother.
He has done more already for the good of the country than Bush did in eight years. Bush almost ran the country into bankruptcy. I did not see one line from you about the any foreign country that Bush went to they had to block off some two miles to keep him safe. I did not see one word from you when Bush left the Whitehouse to give a speech it was to a military base where those there had to listen and applaud or at least not say one word or even look disappointed for fear of court martial.
Wake and give the man a chance instead of constance criticism. How would you like if every column you wrote, you would have a guy like giving you a piece of his mind and I do not have much left.

Posted by Carl Justus | Report as abusive

You’re gosh darn right! Proof will be in the pudding and not a label on a pretty box!

Posted by bob | Report as abusive

Based on the track record to date, you underestimate Barack Obama at your own risk.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

If this writer is at a “Director” level, then this Henry Jackson Center is in a world of hurt as the comments are short-sided and some frankly, ridiculous. Go shake hands with your new candidate – Rush! He’ll get the US out of this mess Reagan and Bush assembled in the name of GOP!

Ah, I see this article ruffled some feathers! The sad reality is that it speaks of truth. Obama is a polished and charismatic speaker, but that’s it. He has nothing in his backgroud that remotely resembles any qualifications to lead our country – during bad or good times. Too many times we tend to forget his involvement. We’re far too entrenched in a falling economy to look to such an inexperienced person to lead us onto the better times!

Posted by Anne Ryan | Report as abusive

Truth is the economy skated on the good works of Ronald Reagan and his ‘deregulation’ and ideas of market freedom right through H.W.Bush, Clinton, and the W.Bush eras… So to blame all the issues on Bush is like blaming bad weather on Mother Nature. The world benefitted from Reaganomics as well especially Europe. 9/11 and its terrorism repercussions alone had a huge effect on the economy that has not been fully calculated, however you can blame the Iraq war debacle on W if you want a scapegoat.

The problem is Obama oversold the steak and the EU expects to see the sizzle… if there is any. Our selfish shallow culture expects simple solutions to complex problems and is used to the idea that the US is some bottomless pit of goodwill and cash– this is simply fantasy. My personal opinion is Obama is a lightweight, way out of his league, with more rhetoric than substance. The honeymoon will end soon enough of its own reasons.

There has been plenty of selfish greed to go several times around the world in this. Blaming the US is getting to be a bad copout for the rest of the world.

The deficit spending quagmire Obama leaves as his legacy will take generations to fix, if ever, not to mention undoing the harm of his social revisions.

I’m with Carl…its a little early to be passing a judgement on the President’s performance. It seems that everyone is so used to getting things now now now that we need to step back and look at the scope of what we are faced with. It is unrealistic to think that the global economy is just gonna bounce back to where it was in a matter of months(years even). It is unrealistic to try to judge the president on his performance after 3 months in office. Its easy to sit back and criticize and offer opinions when you are not the one behind the reins. I can’t see how anyone would want him to carry on as the last president did…he’s gotta try something else. In all fairness we should be satified that he is making an apparent effort. It would probably behoove us to sit back and be quiet for a while but keep a watchful eye. Its too early at this point.

Posted by Liam Ghallagher | Report as abusive

Your argument makes no sense. First you say that Obama will be welcomed in Europe with “crowds roaring with anger and frustration” then go on to say “there is tremendous accumulated goodwill towards the new American president in Europe.” Those are two opposing views. Which one is your opinion? Why don’t you wait at least until the trip is complete before you assume the goodwill in Europe for the new president has evaporated.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Obama has done more damage to this country in the last 3 months than any other president before him. He has reversed policies without thoroughly reviewing what the policies are first. He is forcing his agenda down Congress and the Senate without allowing the sufficient time necessary to review the bills. Most of the Congress and Senate did not get ample time to read the so-called “Stimulus” bill. Obama is dangerous and as a middle class New Yorker – I pay 38% in taxes already and now he plans to tax me further. Shall the middle class bear all the burden for the unemployed because we work hard? The government can’t manage itself, what makes me believe that the government can STEAL my money and manage it better than I can???? I don’t! I believe the people who earn their own money should see fit to do with it what they want, not what others want. Obama and the non-tax payer Democrats just wants to steal more of my money.

Posted by Middle Class VICTIM | Report as abusive

Barack is a very busy-boy—its true. I think he is paying back quickly the people who invested heavily into his ‘dark-horse’ campaign. But Mr. Obama doesn’t have the persective that this country has been based upon for 200 years that allowed us to prosper and grow to the worlds largest economy. If we are not very, very careful—we will become a 2nd rate nation. And that can happen far quicker than we would like to believe. We are living in a time that could be catastrophic—if we are not very careful to go back to our roots. We need to return to our values—that got us there.

Posted by jim mills | Report as abusive

I don’t get it. Bush has done what no anti-westerners radicals could have possibly dreamed of achieving: destroy the western civilization or take it to a point where you don’t have a voice anymore. And sir,you dare talking about Obama not being able to deliver?
Are you kidding me?

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

Right on target. Obama always has been all talk and no substance. Now America — and the world — is paying for its infatuation with his silver tongue.

Posted by Charles | Report as abusive

Mr. Shepherd is being realistic. When Americans elected Obama, it was like giving tenure to a teacher who only taught formally for 2+ years (including his interviewing process). He lacks experience but has a ton of self confidence – memoire , TV special and all. The more speeches he gives, the more SMUG he becomes. He has the same amount of swagger as president Bush, only he’s not talking about ‘smoking em’ out of their holes’, but rather, ‘ignoring the day to day gyrations of the stock market’. The man has A LOT to prove us. The popularity contest, media-frenzied honeymoon period IS over.

Posted by ErinO | Report as abusive

By their deeds you will know them.

Barack was the biggest bailout cheerleader on the hill. He kicked things off with a huge ‘necessary’ fraud.

Don’t expect anything for you and me from this little orgy of Government and Bankers. How sad that central banks run the whole world in secret and even Americans, who should know better, think they are free.

Posted by dave | Report as abusive

I had never heard of “Robin Shepherd” before seeing this blog post.

That he directs anything is not a surprise, considering the recent confirmation that a great number of our managers have turned out to be abjectly unqualified.

Shepherd reveals nothing in his post, beyond a healthy grip on cynicism, and a less healthy fear of optimism.

Here is an idea for you, Mr. Shepherd; let us see the results of Obama’s visit before we condemn it to failure. It is not at all prescient to utter phrases such as “Obama … will be handed the dunce’s cap if things do not improve.” Yes, we know. A better question, Mr. Shepherd, might be; will you hand him his due credit if they do?

My estimation of Barack Obama’s effectiveness is stellar; of Shepherd, not so much.

Posted by Jerry Ulibarri | Report as abusive

You are grossly underestimating the man. You may want to reflect on what you’ve contributed to society over your career rather than his 70 days in office. I doubt your life to date could equal his 70 days

Posted by Bill Falls | Report as abusive

A comment on the conclusion:

Do you honestly believe that President Obama has been enjoying a Honeymoon this whole time?!

Sheeeesh.

Posted by Noah Blinderzawn | Report as abusive

It is difficult to separate the optimism and hopes that I have for this President from the horror of our economic situation. Nobody can say that he has done nothing given trillions in planned spending and an array of special programs.

I do not believe that lack of global cooperation is the cause of our economic crisis. Members of the G20 can draw ponies on their foreheads and dance around like wombats covered with fire ants. None of that tangibly contributes to a resolution although people will seem to get along better.

As far as I can tell, President Obama is pretty much doing everything a president can under the circumstances. We overestimate the ability of the U.S. President to single-handedly deliver world economies from the shadows of death. But the guy is so coherent, so sound in judgement, I don’t think history will look at his performance poorly.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

Berlin has a bad track record of giving its support to good orators. They loved Obama on his first trip, and all I want to know is, do you already have your “O” armbands ready?

Posted by Joe Johnson | Report as abusive

Obama won the election as a protest against George Bush. Obama ran a two year campaign without enunciating specifics.

Now that he is in office, more and more Americans are looking and listening to him with dismay. We were angry with Bush for his trillion dollar deficits after eight years in office. We are dismayed that Obama has more than doubled that debt in just 60 days.

The economic fiasco in America is not about policy, it is about debt. Too much debt. And the way out is NOT more debt. But Obama does not care about anything except his agenda. For that agenda the world will pay.

In time, even Western Europeans will see him for what he is, just as Eastern Europeans already suspect. And they too will feel betrayed.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive