Great Expectations

07/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

(Berlin) -- Tomorrow Senator Barack Obama will deliver a major speech in front of the Siegessäule, or "Victory Column," in Berlin. He will speak in front of thousands -- some have predicted hundreds of thousands -- in a speech that will mark the first and only major public address of his closely followed overseas tour.

People have grown to expect a lot from Senator Obama's speeches, but then, people have grown to expect a lot from Senator Obama. He is hailed, for better or worse, not just as a rising political star and potential future U.S. president but as a bearer of hope -- a savior.

True, as the campaign has gotten muddier and Obama has made the American politician's traditional migration to the center, the Senator has lost some of his shine and it seems that in many corners the Obama-worship has cooled into controlled optimism. The Spiegel cover shown above (which reads: Germany Meets The Superstar) is partly tongue-in-cheek, both an acknowledgment of the Obamamania that has caught fire in Europe and a play on "Germany Seeks A Superstar", the German version of American Idol. Nevertheless among the people (and especially among Europeans, who view him as the glittering Anti-Bush) he remains enormously popular. According to a Spiegel poll 76% of Germans think Obama would make the better President compared with 10% who would prefer Sen. John McCain.

Due to a combination of factors, Obama's powerful speeches, his relative youth, and the excitement his candidacy has generated, comparisons to the fond figure of John F. Kennedy have been abundant. The endorsements of both Sen. Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy (the latter in a notable op-ed ) have also certainly contributed to this idea.

Whether Jack or Jesus these are big shoes to fill. And though anticipation is running high, no one really knows what to expect.

What will Obama say?

What's clear is that he will address the German-American relationship and stress unity and the rebuilding of alliances. These themes are universal pleasers and of course very important. On the pricklier side, some in Germany suspect that, in an effort to highlight his recent push for a refocusing of U.S. energies away from Iraq and onto Afghanistan, he may call for increased German support there. (Germany has some 3,200 troops stationed in Afghanistan but has, for political and historical reasons, resisted taking on an expanded combat role beyond its current peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts.)

What's also clear is that the senator's speech, despite its location, will be meant more for American ears than for German ones. Obama is engaged, for those who have forgotten, in an active presidential campaign and the world tour he's embarked on is not a vacation from, but rather a part of that campaign, meant to shore up his foreign policy credentials and deflect criticism that he his a foreign policy lightweight. Though it may seem like a victory lap, it is campaigning and an early plan for Obama to speak in front of Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate -- ala Ronald Reagan -- was squashed for precisely that reason (German chancellor Angela Merkel felt it was an inappropriate venue for a political candidate).

The ongoing status of the campaign has complicated the trip in other ways as well. As Maureen Dowd of the Times pointed out in a recent column, Obama must walk a very fine line in his foray abroad. He must act and appear presidential without acting as though he is already President and thereby seeming arrogant. He must show he can heal our wounded foreign alliances without appearing too chummy with the Europeans and putting off meatloaf-eaters at home.

The more interesting question is, perhaps, not what will Obama say -- but what can he say? Whatever words the senator from Illinois summons, it's likely that expectations have risen beyond the point of possible fulfillment.

To quote the German news magazine Der Spiegel (21.7.2008):

"He is awaited like a wizard, who can transform a dull world into a beautiful one. There's never been so much fuss in Germany over a candidate's visit. Obama wants to be President of the United States, but there's so much ado, that it's as if he were already two steps further, as though he were the president of the world. ...Surrounding Obama is the impression that he won't just change America, but politics itself."

The article goes on to make an important point, namely that Obama has become as much a symbol as a man. In a time of economic crisis, war and political turmoil, a worried Western world has heaped its hopes on Barack Obama and pinned its future on his star.

The reason the simple campaign slogans of "change" and "hope" have proven so appealing to so many is that the direction of events over the last eight years has left a majority of people hungry, above all, for a dramatic change of course. Whether that would happen under a President Obama, of course, remains to be seen.

Obama is known for his strong, stirring speeches. His opponents have tried to turn this against him by characterizing him as little more than a pretty-talker. But Obama has never been "just words". He has inspired in people a forgotten optimism that would be the necessary engine of any real change in America. In other words, Obama hasn't just talked about hope, he's given people hope, something very real indeed.

Whether Obama is the soon-to-be President of the World is probably a silly question. Even so, as he takes the stage in Berlin on Thursday afternoon, the world will be watching.