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Obama Enjoys Kennedy-esque Popularity in Ireland

Forget about the luck of the Irish. Ireland is facing its most serious economic crisis in decades. Its government -- led by bumbling Taoiseach Brian Cowen -- inspires the same sort of confidence that charging Gen. George Pickett does among Civil War historians, and after rejecting the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, its relationship with the European Union is anything but stable.

Enter Obama, who despite the widespread cynicism accompanying Ireland's political and economic woes, is enjoying levels of Irish support and enthusiasm unseen since Kennedy became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Emerald Isle in 1963.

I was recently at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Clifden, Co. Galway, during the course of a four-month study program on the island, and to say that the European attitude toward the United States has undergone a seismic shift since Obama's inauguration would be a gross understatement. Marching alongside the traditional tricolour of Ireland were nothing less than three Irishmen wearing signboards featuring photos of Obama and proclaiming "Saint Barack" and "President Obama: a New Hope." The almost entirely Irish crowd roared as they marched past.

In the days and weeks following Obama's inauguration, which was widely viewed in pubs across Ireland, the American president has proven a topic of conversation nearly as popular as the current economic crisis and football, or, soccer. The anger directed toward George W. Bush and the United States following the invasion and occupation of Iraq has largely subsided, with the Irish in particular looking to Obama for positive change.

Of course, as always happens when any European country gets excited about anything remotely progressive in the United States, conservatives will likely wonder, "Great. Who cares?" In physical size, Ireland is, after all, slightly larger than West Virginia. Such critics, though, would be wise to remember that in the United States alone, more than 40 million Americans claim Irish descendancy, and the tiny island has been hugely significant in the development of American culture and economy. Just ask Pat Buchanan.

In visiting Derry in Northern Ireland, where recent killings by IRA splinter cells have once again threatened to destabilize the peace process, I had an opportunity to meet John Hume, former SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who insisted that the efforts of Americans such as Jimmy Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George Mitchell in advancing peace are not forgotten in both the North and South. Hundreds of other American mayors, congressmen, senators, and civic leaders have further contributed to the relationship.

"We're living in a much smaller world," said Hume. "It should be the objective of the major leaders of the world to ensure a world without war and advance the philosophy of conflict resolution...spilling sweat together and not blood."

As Hume spoke, I could not help but think of Obama's recent European tour, in which he rose above the ideological differences of the past, apologizing for America's "arrogance" of the past, called for G20 and NATO nations to take the lead in meaningful nuclear disarmament, and, before the Turkish parliament, declared that "the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam." The trip was greeted with glowing reviews in the Irish press.

As John Hume said, "The essence of our unity in the modern world is respect for our diversity."

Just over 100 days into his presidency and evidenced by the reaction to his progressive agenda here in Ireland, Barack Obama seems the perfect man to deliver the message.