When Barack Obama visited Paris on a tour of Europe last summer, he may have been surprised to discover that he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had much in common, especially their status as outsiders. Sarkozy made a big deal out of it: "In Europe," he said to Obama, "there are many people who come from different backgrounds and who have many different histories and who are not altogether 'classic' French. Not everyone here is called 'Sarkozy'," said the son of a Hungarian immigrant. "And I'm well aware that not everybody in the United States is called Obama."
The most skilled and successful politicians in Europe—and now in America too—manage to be insiders and outsiders at the same time. Thus we have British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who spent a decade as chancellor of the exchequer, but remains a Scot in the middle of a political system dominated by the English. And there's Angela Merkel, the first woman to be chancellor of Germany and the first from the impoverished East. Every head of the seven most industrialized nations has been labeled—or has claimed to be—an outsider: Roman Catholic Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, despite his family's wealth and influence; Stephen Harper, Canada's rare Protestant, non-Quebecer, non-Liberal leader; even billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, a onetime lounge singer who claims to be from outside Italy's political establishment, even in his third term at the helm.
No wonder that Republican John McCain—the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant scion of admirals, who voted 90 percent of the time with the policies of President George W. Bush—spent the campaign fiercely contending that he represented real change because he was a true "maverick." But in the end, the Navy troublemaker lost to an eloquent black man with perhaps the single most coveted credential of the young northeastern elite: president of the Harvard Law Review. Obama is the ultimate Mr. Outside, Mr. Inside.
Still, for a Scot to become prime minister, a woman to become chancellor, an Obama to become leader of the Western world, they did have to work harder and be tougher than anyone else around them. In these hard times, that's the kind of background that should serve the public well. The worst economic crisis in several generations demands a new class of creativity. And none of these leaders knows better how to play on that theme than Obama. As he said on his visit to Paris, "The West generally is at its best … when it's a meritocracy and people rise from all walks of life. That's something that America has always taken great pride in. It is the essence of what we call the American Dream."