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President Barack Obama returns this week to the bluest state in his base,
Europe. His triumphal July 2008 visit featured crowds in the hundreds of
thousands, and today he is more popular in Europe than he is in the United
But the adulation is likely to hit reality in four areas. On the economic
stimulus, Afghanistan, trade and climate change, European leaders and Obama may
well find words of agreement but not actions to back them up.
On the financial crisis, many European leaders have looked askance at Obama’s
call for more economic stimulus. They argue that the money has already been
spent and that it is time for major international regulation of financial
institutions. Their stance is in part an honest policy disagreement, but it is
also calling out America for its past sins and blaming it for the current
But don’t expect these differences to cause the summit to collapse.
Europeans’ love for Obama and the desire to start off on the right foot with a
new administration will most likely lead to a papering over of differences: a
nod to the need for stimulus and an acknowledgment of the stimulus that has
occurred, more funding and promises for a larger role for the IMF and a vow to
cooperate on financial regulation.
If Obama on the campaign trail stressed the need for the U.S. to reach out to
European allies, in the case of Afghanistan he stressed that improved relations
would lead to Europe sharing more of the burden. But those campaign hopes for
more European troops have long since been discarded. The Obama administration is
sending additional troops to Afghanistan, but they will not likely be joined by
many of their European counterparts.
Polls in America show the public still supports the war. European publics are
deeply skeptical, and many European leaders would like to extricate themselves,
not join in a renewed commitment. On this front, look for at best a small number
of additional European troops (almost all from the U.K.) and some development
and training assistance and personnel–a far cry from what candidate Obama
No campaign moment frightened European elites more than the lead-up to the
Ohio primary in 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton one-upped each other
on their skepticism of NAFTA and free trade generally.
On trade, Europeans are in the same boat as Americans in trying to figure out
the president’s policies. On the protectionist side, critics could point to his
Ohio promises to renegotiate NAFTA, the noticeable shift toward protectionism in
public opinion over the past 15 years, the election of some Midwest
congressional Democrats running against trade and “Buy American” provisions in
the stimulus package.
But then there is free trade Obama. His adviser Austan Goolsbee reportedly
told the Canadian government that Obama’s Ohio comments were just politics. The
president does not come out of the labor movement wing of the Democratic Party;
in fact, he has called himself a New Democrat, and it is hard to imagine his
legions of upscale professional supporters Twittering anti-trade bromides. The
president also has made the case that world leaders should not repeat the
protectionist mistakes of the 1930s.
The reality is likely a mixed case, a president who may believe in free trade
but who will not advance its cause and may tolerate small acts of protectionism.
Ironically, European leaders are also flirting with petty protectionism at the
same time they fret about Obama.
Climate change is high on the priority list of most Europeans, and they have
sky-high hopes for the Obama administration. They are looking for quick and
substantial American action in advance of a new climate conference in Copenhagen
Obama would like to meet European expectations. Working with the world in
Copenhagen would be a 180-degree change from President George W. Bush’s opting
out of the Kyoto process early in his presidency. And in polls, Americans are
more likely than they were even eight years ago to believe that climate change
is real and serious.
But Americans still rate climate change as a relatively low-priority issue,
and polls during the economic downturn show an increased willingness to trade
environmental protection for economic growth in the short term. Add to that the
difficulty that Obama faces passing his cap-and-trade proposal through Congress
with many Democrats from coal, oil and auto states expressing doubts.
On climate change, the direction will be one that Europe likes, but the
magnitude of the change will fall far short of expectations.
Despite these significant imperfectly resolved issues, expect smiles at the
final news conference. Like infatuated lovers, Obama and European leaders will
minimize the differences that might later become the sources of marital
John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.
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