Opinion

Mark Leonard

To see Obama’s legacy, look to Europe

Mark Leonard
Feb 19, 2014 17:04 UTC

This week the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, was invited by his party to form a government in Rome. If he succeeds, he will be Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister. Renzi has never had a job in central government or even been a member of parliament. His governing record in Florence is paper-thin. But lack of experience was not a setback in his quest for the top job in Italian politics. It was, in fact, his main qualification.

Renzi’s rapid ascent shows how completely Barack Obama has changed the global political playbook. Although the U.S. president is often accused by his detractors of being European in style, the reality is that it is European politics that are being “Obamafied.” In the UK, and you can see the youthful Labour Party leader Ed Miliband painstakingly mirroring Obama’s campaign tactics. A new generation of center-left leaders in Europe is trying to replicate Obama’s three laws of politics.

The starting point is Obama’s first law: Have no political past. It’s not just that every first-term senator thinks he can be president. Now that senator realizes that in this anti-elitist age his chances of success will diminish in line with his growing experience. Part of Miliband’s appeal to his party was that he was not his more experienced brother, the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose closeness to Prime Minister Tony Blair and refusal to disavow the Iraq war cost him crucial votes in the leadership election.

Obama’s second law of politics: Create a new electorate. Renzi’s election to the head of the Democratic Party (PD) in Italy was a reaction against the old-school PD leader Pier-Luigi Bersani, who relied on traditional constituencies at the expense of younger voters. When he took over the leadership of the party this week, Renzi called for the old guard of Italian politics to be “scrapped” and reveled in the nickname “demolition man.”

“This is not the end of the left, it is the end for a group of the left’s political leaders,” said Renzi upon his election as party leader. The same was true for 44 year-old Miliband, who won election as Labour Party leader in 2010 on the promise of generational change.

The Europeanization of America

Mark Leonard
Feb 25, 2013 20:52 UTC

For her first overseas trip as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton went to Asia. For his first trip, John Kerry chose Europe. His choice is partly a result of his strong connections across the Atlantic and partly a move against the frustrations U.S. diplomats have faced in places like Beijing. Kerry’s choice also speaks to a remarkable narrowing of the Atlantic, which culminated in Obama’s championing of a transatlantic free-trade agreement in his State of the Union address this month.

Only 10 years ago, Europe and the U.S. were meant to be so different that not only did they have different views, but they viewed each other as if from different planets. Politically and militarily, the author Robert Kagan claimed, Americans were from Mars and Europeans from Venus. American commentators used to routinely denounce European economies for being closed, backward-looking and missing the wave of the future. Germany was still seen as the sick man of Europe, and it was the subject of ridicule for the way it was wedded to an industrial economy in a post-industrial age. What a difference a decade can make.

As a European in Washington, I have spent much of the past few weeks listening to pillars of the American foreign policy and economic establishments. I am struck by how many of today’s U.S. debates mirror those in Europe. These two giant economies are no longer as different as they once were.

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