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The 100 Day Report Card: How Does the World See Obama?

April 28, 2009

James Fallows at the Atlantic describes the nine important moments in Obama’s first hundred days that he thinks exemplify how the world views the new American president. The most significant?

April 5 (or, in 100 Days mode, Day 76 of the Obama presidency, counting January 20 as Day 1.) Obama’s speech in Prague about eliminating nuclear weapons. From an international perspective, this speech was a counterpart to Obama’s post-Rev. Wright, campaign-saving address on race relations, in Philadelphia, a little more than a year ago. That is, it addressed a question of first-order seriousness – in this case, what is to become of the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads still around – and handled it with both clarity and complexity. He also showed that it was possible to talk seriously about terrorist threats without fear-mongering. This line was noted around the world (friends in Japan sent me messages about it within minutes): “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” Obama said that without guilt, apology, or suggestion that Harry Truman’s decision to bomb Japan had been wrong, but nonetheless as a historical truth to be recognized. A speech worthy of the great post-World War II American statesmen.

What I find interesting here, and it’s even more noticeable if you read the whole list, is that the international perception of Obama is built in part on statements and priorities that have gained little notice in the US. The international community likes Obama, as we do, but for different reasons. It’s not unusual for world leaders to be perceived differently at home and abroad, of course–Gorbachev was revered here in America for his glasnost and perestroika but reviled at home for his inefficiencies and for poor economic conditions–but Obama has a particular talent for being appealing to others in whatever way they need him to be appealing. He is like a rorschach test in that way…people and countries tend to see in him a representation of their positive hopes for the future. Maybe because of his energy, his intelligence or his policies. Maybe it is because he is not George Bush. But, in any event, they do like and respect him. And that is a new and welcome change from the last eight years.

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