In Spain, Obama is ‘Kennedy with wings’

Morgan Smith
This photo of Sen. Barack Obama was taken by the author in Denver in 2007. He made it into a postcard and handed it out to Spaniards captivated by the American politician.

During a mid-February visit to Spain, both the press and people on the street ” cab drivers, farmers, business people, waiters, musicians ” were absorbed by politics. Not surprising, considering that Spain’s national elections are March 9 and that the two major parties, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the more liberal PSOE are locked in a very close and bitter race. What did surprise me is that the political figure who most fascinates Spaniards is neither Mariano Rajoy, the PP candidate, nor Jose Luis Zapatero, the PSOE candidate and incumbent. It is U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama.

The issues being debated here are very similar to ours. Here are some examples.

– Immigration: The bodies of immigrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, are constantly being found washed up on the beaches of southern Spain just as dozens of immigrants are found dead along the deserts of our southern border. And Spaniards, like Americans, are increasingly shying away from the kind of farm or construction work that my generation did in Aspen as teenagers, leaving that work to Senagalese or Moroccans or Ecuadorans.

– Climate Change: I was in Spain last fall during a visit by Al Gore, and his voice dominated the airways even though few Spaniards could understand what he was saying. The climate extremes now ” tremendous drought, especially in the Barcelona area ” are propelling even conservative Spaniards, like farmers, to face this issue.

– Gay Rights: Overwhelmingly Catholic Spain legalized gay marriage two years ago, despite strong opposition from the PP and the Catholic Church. Shortly thereafter, a city council member from northern Spain, who was a PP member, decided that, since the law had changed, he could come out and marry his partner. PP members from all over the country, despite having fought against this law a few months earlier, joined him and his partner at the wedding celebration. Now with elections a few weeks away, the church is striking back with large demonstrations. We’ll see how this works out.

– The Economy: For a country with little or no population growth, Spain has had an extraordinary construction boom. In fact, that has been the key to Spain’s strong economic growth in the last decade, reminding me of Denver in the mid-1980s when I wondered, “Who is going to fill all these apartments or this new office space?”

Now you are beginning to see more and more half-finished buildings and abandoned construction sites. It’s easy to talk about the global impact of the problems in the U.S. economy, but Spain’s coming problems are largely self-inflicted and neither political party knows what to do about it.

– Gas Prices: It’s always odd to go from the U.S., where we complain about $3-per-gallon gasoline, to Europe, where gas at $6 or more per gallon seems to be accepted. But Spain has made significant progress on alternative transportation, continuing to expand metro systems like that in Barcelona and now completing (after many delays) a high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona that will go 150 miles per hour.

These issues are generally common to all developed countries. The enormous surprise to me in Spain, however, was the Obama phenomenon. It was journalist Jordi Soler who called him, “a Kennedy with music.” In another El Pais article, the writer Abel Grau emphasized the popularity of the king’s daughter, Elena, by saying that a story about her had received more hits on their website than even Obama. Alex Muns, writing for Expansion, talks about how the charisma, popularity and idealistic message of Obama has propelled him past Hillary Clinton.

What was more impressive was the interest on the part of the ordinary Spaniards in Obama. I didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t more anxious to talk about him than their own two drab male candidates, Rajoy and Zapatero. The fact is that we’re doing something that would be inconceivable in most countries ” the idea of a black man running to be our leader. Or a woman.

In Spain, someone without deep Catalan roots, for example, could never be elected in Catalonia just as someone with those same Catalan roots could never be elected nationwide.

Europeans are increasingly locked into narrow racial, ethnic and historic identities that do not allow them to reach out to someone like an Obama. Look, for example, at the continuing, deep-seated and very dangerous Serbian resistance to independence for Kosovo.

Yes, we’ve been through eight grim years in the United States and our popularity has plummeted. But no other country has stepped forward to advocate the kinds of ideals that are still associated with our country. In Obama, even Spaniards working in olive orchards, waiting tables or driving taxis can see a kind of idealism that’s simply not available to them within their political environment or within the political environment of other European countries.

That’s a huge plus for Americans as a people and a country, one that we need to take advantage of.