Until recently, when people asked me why I'm so engrossed in an election being contested in a country thousands of miles from mine, my stock reply was "Well, I heard it's a pretty important country." A pithy yet truthful rejoinder, I thought -- now I realize it was a lame cop-out. Or at the least, it's hardly the most compelling reason for non-Americans to pay attention to this election.
So here's a better one. Every four years, a host of pundits will pipe up and pompously proclaim that this election is the most important one of our lifetime. Of course, these people get paid to provide events with a feeling of urgency; but this time, they may just happen to be right. And yes, this has everything to do with the candidacy of Senator Obama.
Given the past seven years, neither Americans nor Europeans can be blamed for their apathy towards US politics. Admittedly, while observers on the Old Continent merely tut and shake their heads at the morning headlines, it is Americans who are affected much more directly by the disastrous policies of the Bush administration -- but the displeasure is the same.
For most of 2007, common sense among European observers was that Senator Clinton would win the Democratic nomination, that she would probably coast to victory on a wave of dissatisfaction with the sitting President, and that would be that.
But Iowa changed everything. In a rousing victory speech, Obama spoke of cynicism and optimism, of fear and hope, and of an urgent sense of personal responsibility. Europeans were puzzled to no end: as much as we awaited the end of the reign of Bush the younger, this was hardly what we had been expecting. As the primary season developed so did, cautiously, a sense that maybe America would this year have the chance to vote for a candidate instead of a generic "anything but Bush" platform.
Now, Europe understands very well that Senator Obama still needs to win an election; it also understands that if he does, he will become President of the United States -- and Europeans have developed a healthy habit of growing disenchanted with whoever holds that office. Also, criticisms of Obama being perceived as an empty vessel upon which others project their desires I feel are largely justified. So I for one am fully prepared to become disenchanted in a year or two and see Europeans retreat to their time-tested strategy of blaming all that ails the world on whoever happens to occupy the White House at the time.
But this does not take away from the broader movement Obama's candidacy effects. It is not mere infatuation that causes German ministers to sing the praises of the Senator from Illinois; it is not a disregard for substance that moves Dutch party leaders to urge their members to learn from his style. It is the breath of fresh air it represents. It is the notion that if this is possible, in Washington -- that sluggish, self-important, gargantuan political beast -- of all places, then surely it must be feasible to shake things up at home.
So hope, yes, and optimism. But let's not forget that other topic the candidate touched upon, that night in Des Moines: any change worth working for and worth fighting for must be worked for, must be fought for. I believe that aside from the admittedly more abstract notions of hope and change, Obama's candidacy has the ability to inspire concrete, effective grassroots initiatives on this side of the Atlantic, too, something which many European societies sorely lack.
Some accuse the Senator of running for president of the world, and I cannot help but sympathize with such sentiments: were I to have any say in such decisions, I would surely have advised against the candidate's public appearance in Berlin.
Yet standing there in Tiergarten, hearing Obama speak of cynicism and optimism, of fear and hope, and of an urgent sense of personal responsibility, I think I understood what, in a nutshell, he was trying to tell us. And it's the exact same thing I now say whenever people ask me why it matters so much to me, that silly election being contested so far away:
"It's time to start caring again."