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Linda Bergthold Headshot

Should We Care What the World Thinks About Obama?

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Barack Obama's speech in Berlin in front of 200,000 spectators has generated a flurry of commentary in U.S. and world newspapers, online and in print. Bloggers in many countries have analyzed the speech, the blue tie, the brilliance of his smile, the way his entrance seemed to have him floating on water as he approached the podium. Most of the coverage has been positive, noting that the speech gave a positive signal to Europe. Commentators in Germany say the speech did what it had to do -- address the world as well as his constituencies back home. Some complimented him for bringing up the issue of sending more German troops to Afghanistan, an issue not very popular in Germany.

In the U.K. newspapers called it a "historic" speech. The French Le Figaro online praised the phrasing of People of Berlin, Our time has come.

In Nairobi, a search of the Daily Nation comes up with 100 articles about Obama, and on the day of the speech the paper carried most of the text of the speech with a large picture of him on the front page.

Not all the coverage has been positive, of course. One U.K. blogger was distinctly annoyed by the speech, saying the earth did not move for her. And there were those who could not bring themselves to praise any American politician, no matter how eloquent. Europeans tend to be much more knowledgeable about history and politics than the average American, and many follow our elections with intensity and comment on U.S. websites frequently. An article in the New York Times titled "Change the Germans can't believe in" noted that Germans would be arguing if Obama was Kantian or Hobbesian or Harbermas-ian? Not too many Americans would even be able to keep up with that conversation.

However, for those of us who have lived outside the U.S. for any period of time, the obsession with the Berlin speech and Obama as a candidate around the world is completely understandable. Anyone who has traveled abroad in the last 8 years has had to answer at least one or two questions from host nationals as to how George Bush got elected in the first place. The rest of the world does not understand why we vote the way we do, and why we allowed Bush to wage war in Iraq with relatively little protest. Sometimes it's hard to explain.

Obama, on the other hand, presents a much more familiar face to the world -- multi-racial, urbane, educated, articulate, graceful, in a way that is a sharp contrast to Bush's privileged background, his tendency to misuse language, his bumbling ways and awkward walk, his faux pas in international meetings (e.g. giving a neck rub to Angela Merkel). It is precisely Obama's potential to help America regain some respect around the world that drew me to his candidacy in the first place. This trip and this speech proved what I had hoped all along about Obama's ability to inspire, not just his potential.

For Americans who believe that the rest of the world should just suck it up and love us or leave us alone, the argument that we should care what the world thinks of us will have no impact. Who cares what the French or German think about our president, they will say. Who cares what they think about Obama? That is precisely what Obama was trying to say in his Berlin speech -- that we have moved past the era in which any nation can afford to ignore its neighbors. None of the big issues facing us can be solved alone -- certainly not energy and global warming; obviously not terrorism; and definitely not trade. So how the world views Obama's trip and his Berlin speech is important. Overcoming cynicism and hopelessness is a challenge that we all will face, no matter whether we are Americans or Kenyans or Brazilians or Cambodians or - yes French or Germans. We need to care about what the world thinks of Obama.