LONDON – For much of the world, Sen. Barack Obama’s victory in the Democratic primaries was a moment to admire the United States, at a time when the nation’s image abroad is in tatters.
From hundreds of supporters crowded around televisions in rural Kenya, Obama’s ancestral homeland, to jubilant Britons writing “WE DID IT!” on the “Brits for Barack” site on Facebook, people celebrated what they called an important racial and generational milestone for the United States.
“This is close to a miracle. I was certain that some things will not happen in my lifetime,” said Sunila Patel, 62, a widow encountered on the streets of New Delhi, India. “A black president of the U.S. will mean that there will be more American tolerance for people around the world who are different.”
The primary elections generated unprecedented interest around the world, as people in distant parliament buildings and thatched-roof huts followed the political ups and downs as if they were watching a Hollywood thriller.
Much of the interest simply reflects hunger for change from President Bush, who is deeply unpopular in much of the world. At the same time, many people abroad seemed impressed – sometimes even shocked – by the wide-open nature of U.S. democracy and the history-making race between a woman and a black man.
“The primaries showed that the U.S. is actually the nation we had believed it to be, a place that is open-minded enough to have a woman or an African-American as its president,” said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo political analyst.
“I think it will be put down as a shining, historical moment in the history of America,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor at Tokyo University.
While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has admirers around the world, especially from her days as first lady, interviews on four continents suggested that Obama’s candidacy has most captured the world’s imagination.
“Obama is the exciting image of what we always hoped America was,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London think tank. “We have immensely enjoyed the ride and can’t wait for the next phase.”
The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, who has extensive overseas experience, is known and respected in much of the world. In interviews, McCain seemed more popular than Obama in countries such as Israel, where he is particularly admired for his hard line against Iran. In China, leaders have enjoyed comfortable relations with Bush and are widely believed to be wary of a Democratic administration.
“Although no one will admit it, Israeli leaders are worried about Obama,” said Eytan Gilboa, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “The feeling is that this is the time to be tough in foreign policy toward the Middle East, and he’s going to be soft.”
But elsewhere, people were praising Obama, whose heavy emphasis on the Internet helped make him better known in more nations than perhaps any U.S. primary candidate in history.
In Kenya, Obama’s victory was greeted with unvarnished glee. In Kisumu, close to the home of Obama’s late father, hundreds crowded around televisions to watch Obama’s victory speech Wednesday morning, chanting “Obama tosha!” which translates as, “Obama is enough!”
Sam Onyango, a water vendor in Kisumu, said: “Obama’s victory means I might one day get to America and share the dreams I have always heard about. He will open doors for us there in the spirit of African brotherhood.”
Obama also has strong support in Europe, the heartland of anti-Bush sentiment. “Germany is Obama country,” said Karsten Voight, the German government’s coordinator for German-North American cooperation. “He seems to strike a chord with average Germans,” who see him as a transformational figure such as John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr.
Despite his Harvard Law School degree and comparisons to historical greats, Obama is an accessible and familiar figure for millions of people, particularly in poor nations.
His father’s journey to America as a Kenyan immigrant resonates with millions of migrants. Many people interviewed said that the son’s living in Indonesia for several years as a child doesn’t qualify as foreign policy credentials, but it may give him a more instinctive feel for the plight of the developing world.
“He’s African, he’s an immigrant family; he has a different style. It’s just the way he looks – he seems kind,” said Nagy Kayed, 30, a student at the American University in Cairo.
For many, Obama’s skin color is deeply symbolic. As the son of an African and a white woman from Kansas, Obama has the brownish “everyman” skin color shared by hundreds of millions of people.
“He looks like Egyptians. You can walk in the streets and find people who really look like him,” said Manar el-Shorbagi, a specialist in U.S. political affairs at the American University in Cairo.
In many nations, Obama’s youth and skin color also represent a welcome generational and stylistic change for America. Obama personifies not the America of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney but the nation that produced Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods – youthful, dark-skinned sports stars who are deeply admired household names around the world.
“It could help to reduce anti-U.S. sentiment and even turn it around because of what he represents,” said Kim Sung-ho, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.
“For an African-American candidate to compete and perhaps win a presidential election is a strong reason for people in Asia to reconnect with the U.S.,” Kim said. “This is such a contrast to the image of the United States as presented through its wars in Iraq and Vietnam.”