12/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Italians Are in Love -- with Obama

Nov. 23 update -- Silvio Berlusconi now says he is "jealous" of Obama's "tan"....

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's buffoonish reference two days after the election (Nov. 6) to Barack Obama as "handsome, young and tanned" is probably the only news most Americans have heard about Italy since the U.S. presidential election. Understandably, many Americans were bewildered and offended by Berlusconi's remarks, which could only be described as utterly insensitive, if not downright racist. It hasn't helped that Berlusconi has remained largely unapologetic since - repeatedly insisting that his reference to Obama as "tanned" was a "compliment" and a term of "endearment;" publicly berating a US reporter who questioned him about his remarks at a European Union event in Brussels; and, true to form, dismissing Italian opposition leaders who demanded he apologize as "graduates from a school of dickheads."

It would be unfortunate to think Berlusconi expresses the sentiments most Italians have towards Obama. In fact, if you want to know what most Italians think about Obama, forget about Silvio Berlusconi -whenever he opens his mouth a large portion of Italians react the same way a large portion of Americans have reacted to George W. Bush over the last eight years: They wish they could run away and hide. As two Americans who have lived for some time Italy, we can attest that the election of Obama has been a source of great joy and admiration throughout Italy. Joy, because for most Italians the Bush years have felt like an unwanted eight-year estrangement from a close friend for whom they still feel deep affection; and now this rift may finally be healed. Admiration, because Obama's victory is seen as proof that America still has the capacity to innovate and renew itself, to represent a better future, and to remain a source of inspiration.

To understand both reactions, one has to realize how low our stock had dropped during the last eight years. The dismal Bush/Cheney record: a go-it-alone, bellicose foreign policy, a hideous war, torture, intolerance of dissent, domestic spying, a cavalier disregard for the environmental crisis that Europeans have understood for some time is the planet's number one threat ... mocked a basic faith that Italians have had for more than sixty years in the United States, not only as the country which liberated Italy and all of Europe from fascism, but that also embodied the vibrant, inclusive, open and stable democracy they wished to emulate.

The Obama victory, judging from what we see, has restored that faith. Italians followed the election closely beginning with the Iowa caucuses. Press coverage was nonstop, with Italy's largest newspapers sending their own teams of reporters to cover the campaign directly for the last several months. One friend of ours grumbled that Italians seemed more interested in the U.S. election than their own. Most Italians decided months ago whom they would support and if Italians could have voted, Obama probably would have received more than 75 percent of their vote. As Election Day drew nearer, we were frequently stopped on the street by friends anxiously yearning to know: Did we think Obama was going to do it? And since the election, it has been impossible for us to go anywhere without receiving congratulations from anyone who realizes we are Americans. Indeed the only disappointment we have heard is that most Italians would prefer that Obama become President within the next two weeks, instead of two months.

The phenomenonal reaction to Obama is much more than just relief that the Bush years will finally end. It signifies the clear understanding that the Obama's election was extraordinary, a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that his election has set a new mark to which Italy and the rest of Europe will need to aspire.

Here's a small example of how Obama's election has infiltrated even the smallest corners of Italy: In the small Umbrian city in which we live, the mid-November celebration of our patron saint, St. Florido, is one of the most important holidays of the year. The standing room only Mass, celebrated in the high cathedral, is attended by everyone from the mayor to our local Green Party delegate in the regional assembly in Perugia. Flanked by all the priests from the twenty-odd parish churches in our diocese, the local bishop leads the one-and-a-half hour mass and delivers the homily. Generally his remarks are confined to imploring his flock to rediscover the spirit of St. Florido and our other Umbrian saints, which is to say being more humble and observant servants of the rules of the Church.

But in this year's St. Florido Mass, celebrated on November 13th, about half-way through the homily, just after the usual remarks about the good deeds of St. Florido in the 6th century, the Bishop suddenly marched off in an unanticipated direction. "A few days ago an important politician said these words," he began. And then (in Italian) he quoted a verbatim passage from Obama's victory speech in Grant Park: "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope." After a pause, with the mayor and all the leading politicians of our town sitting directly under him in the very front pews, he proceeded to state that our town - and all of Europe - needs to rediscover that same sense of hope, opportunity and renewal. Not content to stop there, he began to list what kinds of actions they needed to take: involving young people in civic and political life, welcoming immigrants, and aiding the poor. In a few short moments he had turned our normally bland town holiday into a call for social justice and action.

Similarly, when Italy's leading left-leaning daily newspaper, La Repubblica, published a special 195-page "atlas" about Obama two days after the election, the tens of thousands of copies distributed to every news stand in Italy sold out before the weekend was through. Our friends implore us for Obama buttons or any other campaign memorabilia we can find, and it seems as if every Italian stranger we've encountered in the last week - bookstore owners, people on the street, waitresses, every one - has been unable to contain themselves with excitement about the election of our 44th president.

Our friends across Europe have similar stories to tell. Everywhere there is a sense of hope and wonder that America, after reaching perhaps an all time low in world opinion, has pulled a rabbit out of its hat and done the unimaginable - elected an inspirational leader with intelligence and honesty, who believes that it is possible to transcend the confines of race and religion that have stalled dialogue throughout the world, and who arrives with an agenda aimed at comforting the afflicted even if that means afflicting the comfortable. For the first time in many years, political coverage of the U.S. by the Italian a press even contains a tinge of envy. All across Italy, and indeed throughout Europe, there is a renewed appreciation of the American possibility. And more profoundly, there are many Europeans who are wondering if Europe too can find an Obama in its midst.