How the U.S. Election Became the World's Election

The world has never watched any vote, in any nation, so closely. In country after country, polls show record-high fascination with the outcome of the U.S. elections this Tuesday. In Japan, according to one poll, there's more interest in the election than there is in the United States. The Voice of America, which broadcasts in 45 languages to a worldwide audience of 134 million, is seeing "unprecedented interest." In Pakistan there was so much interest in the first presidential debate, the VOA changed its initial plans and broadcast the next two as well. Indonesians and Kenyans, are of course fascinated and somewhat astonished by the fact that Barack Obama, a man with ties to both places, should be the front runner, and in Vietnam, there is much discussion over John McCain, a man who returned home from Hanoi in 1973 a wounded man and spent the rest of his life in dedicated service to the United States.

Europe is thrilled by the prospect that whatever happens this week it will mean the end of George W. Bush, and enraptured by the sheer spectacle of it all. James Dickmeyer, the director of the Foreign Press Centers, which helps international press cover U.S. political campaigns, says foreign journalists swarmed not only the Iowa caucuses but even the Iowa State Fair's Straw Poll, which they had never covered before. Bob Worcester, the American-born founder of the London-based polling and research firm Mori, has worked in more than 40 countries, and says he has "never ever seen any election in which so many people in so many places have been so interested."

It's very clear who they are interested in: Barack Obama. John McCain and Sarah Palin are by all accounts still in the race, but McCain has become a political cipher in a world that has of late tuned into Obama 24/7. (Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, is an afterthought to the international audience). Obama went into Election Day with a steady lead in U.S. polls, averaging about 50 percent to 44 percent for McCain, but he was headed for a landslide around the world, topping polls in virtually every nation often by strong margins: 70 percent in Germany, 75 percent in China and so on. Somewhere along the road to the White House, Obama became the world's candidate—a reminder that for all the talk of America's decline, for all the visceral hatred of Bush, the rest of the world still looks upon the United States as a land of hope and opportunity. "The Obama adventure is what makes America magical," French State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Rama Yade, a Senegalese immigrant who is the only black member of Nicolas Sarkozy's government, recently told Le Parisien.

By the final days, it was as if the world and America were talking about two different elections. In the United States, the pundits framed campaign '08 much as they framed the last election, and the one before. It was a small, almost local obsession with the horse race, with battleground states—not just Ohio but southern Ohio—voter-registration drives, fundraising, ad buys and, of course, that hardy American provincial staple, negative campaigning. Even the discussion of the "race card" echoed, despite the fact that Obama's race changes everything. Republican attempts to play the card against Obama drew comparisons with the Republicans' 1988 attempt to link Michael Dukakis to a black convict. To a large degree, Obama had become just another Democratic candidate, in the chain linking Dukakis to Clinton to Gore to Kerry.

Outside of the United States, the election played large and transformational: a 21st-century man with whom the whole world can identify versus an old cold-warrior out of synch with the complex political and economic crises of our age. The election, it seemed, had morphed into a meta-election. If at home, especially as the election neared its end, Obama seemed to be playing down his blackness, his intellect, his eliteness and his progressive ideas, these were the qualities that more and more drew the rest of the world to him. The world loved the idea that a man named Barack Hussein Obama could become America's 44th president after a 200-year string of white guys named Washington and Jefferson, Clinton and Bush. Asia was trying to claim Obama for his Indonesian childhood, Africa for his Kenyan father, and the Middle East for his middle name, says Ahmed Benchemsi, who edits both of Morocco's leading newsweeklies, one in French, one in Arabic.

Once upon a time, McCain, too, was seen as part of the post-Bush American reformation. He was the worldly wise maverick ex-POW with a reputation abroad for hurling bricks at the Republican Party establishment. He was a fixture at European foreign-policy talking shops, and all the more appealing for asserting in 2000, when he ran for president for the first time, that he wouldn't "pander" to the "agents of intolerance" of the religious right, whose grip on U.S. politics has long perplexed and worried outsiders. When in late August McCain chose Palin to be his running mate in a bid for support from conservative evangelicals, his global luster quickly faded.

Now, to the rest of the world America's election is about change but not just at home. Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian in London, says the past seven years have been a long, painful public education for the world in the importance of decisions made by the United States. "Two wars and a global financial crisis—those events, at least to some extent, had their origins in decisions taken in Washington." What's more, the connection between the world and the occupant of the Oval Office has become deeply personal, says Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. "In a globalized world," she says, "America's president can shape lives worldwide. He is our president, too."

That would be true, up to a point, of any occupant of the highest office in the United States at a time of American pre-eminence in the world. But with Obama, supported as he is by overwhelming majorities abroad, the connection is stronger than it would be with any other incoming president, the affection more deeply personal and the significance of his election much more intense. "The American president always claims to be the 'leader of the world,' and we always hate that arrogance," says Benchemsi. "Obama can say that, and we have no problem with it."

Around the globe, in a way that no one else has for half a century, says Oxford University professor of government Vernon Bogdanor, Obama has raised "hopes of a progressive leader who can restore America's moral leadership." U.K. Minister of State for Higher Education David Lammy, who has known Obama since 2005 when they met at a Harvard event for black alumni, says "Obama's movement for change is one that has the potential to go beyond America's borders, giving him a reach that could be unprecedented for a world leader."

Obama, whose life story allows him readily to be seen as the personification of change, racks up landslide-scale support in global surveys. Recent polling by the London-based firm YouGov had Obama garnering more than 70 percent support in Nordic countries and well more than 50 percent in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They show him rising in the polls since May, ever so slightly in Germany, and by 13 points in Britain, to 62 percent in October. In France, friends-of-Obama committees have proliferated; the French Support Committee for Barack Obama sells "France for Obama" T shirts online. The Portuguese-language version of the social networking Web site Orkut, dominated by Brazilians, has 293 "communities" dedicated to Obamania, including Eu Amo Obama. In Brazil, flattery knows no bounds: at least eight candidates in recent elections simply borrowed Barack Obama's name and put it on the ballot instead of their own.

More than celebrity worship, the Obama phenomenon has already had a very real impact abroad, raising questions, for example, about the lack of progress by racial minorities in Europe. Europe's parliamentary democracies have done quite well by women in recent decades, but blacks and Asians have been left behind. "Searching for the French Barack Obama" was a headline in Le Monde last week. As part of that report, the Togolese-born former state secretary for social affairs and integration Kofi Yamgnane told the paper, "We have to admit that the American model works better than the French model." "We love Obama," wrote the columnist Claude Weill in Nouvel Observateur, because "we hate slavery, racial segregation, discrimination in all its forms—America's original sins." He concludes on a pessimistic note: "We are the country of human rights, no? But are we really listening to Obama?"

As the election neared, Obama looked very likely to win. If he does, judging from the tenor of the campaign's final days, America will have elected a new leader of the world for entirely local reasons. In no small part it will be because of McCain's apparent lack of focus on the economy in an era of financial distress. It will also be a reaction to Palin, a political newcomer and a seeming lightweight a heartbeat away from the presidency, as they say.

If Obama loses, the reaction in America will likely play out along the same old divides. Democrats will interpret the loss in the framework of recent election defeats: we could not elect Al Gore or John Kerry, and now Obama, even in the midst of crisis. Their talk will turn to a new third way. Republicans will look at their implausible victory as a reason to suspend or at least dial down the soul-searching they are undergoing now, over whether they drifted too far right—or not far enough. Conservatives will crow. Liberals will weep. African-Americans will gnash their teeth. (And the media, it must be said, will be shamed for its poll-driven reporting that showed virtually no path to a McCain victory.)

The rest of the world, for its part, will see something different. America, already said to be on the decline, will look all the smaller for having failed to redeem itself with the election of a young black man with African and South Asian roots and a Middle Eastern middle name. And it will look smaller still for having had the opportunity to do so, yet failing to see the opportunity, let alone capitalize on it and breaking a line that goes back more than 200 years in the United States. To the rest of the world, in electing another Republican America will have appeared not only to extend the agonies of the Bush years, but to have missed a historical chance for which it's hard to find a precedent or parallel in any country: the ultimate triumph of a long-oppressed minority.

The world has already cast its vote, in poll after poll, and what it wants, and may not get even if Obama is elected, is an American Gandhi, a Gandhi who not only speaks for the oppressed minority but was one of them. The world caught a glimpse of their man on a sunny afternoon last July in Berlin. He stood at the base of Berlin's Siegessäule, or Victory Column, in the Tiergarten. Some 200,000 people fanned out before him, a crowd much larger than any he had drawn at home during 18 months on the stump. He took the opportunity to address a much larger audience. "People of the world," Barack Obama said, "look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one." That may be too much for any president to deliver. Indeed the world may be setting itself up for a rather rude awakening when an elected Obama proves far more pragmatic, less progressive, than expected. But taking their cue from the title of his second book, the people of the world he addressed that day have invested in him the audacity of their hope.

With Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Mac Margolis in Rio De Janeiro, Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo, William Underhill in London, Barrett Sheridan in New York And Melinda Liu in Beijing

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