It is difficult today to appreciate the expectations he unleashed. I witnessed firsthand how his promises of change pumped up Europeans, Turks, and Arabs during 2008.
I am retired and have been living with my wife Alison on a sailboat in the Mediterranean for nine months out of each year, since we crossed the Atlantic in 2005. (FYI, this is a link to her travelblog of our adventures.) During the summer and fall of 2008, we cruised the coasts of southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. We spent time in harbors and took inland tours, including a side trip into southern Jordan.
I try to chat up our many European sailor friends as well as locals I meet to learn about their conditions, lives, politics, culture, etc. Just about every one I talk to is an 'average joe,' living somewhere along the lower two-thirds of the food chain. Conversations may be in pidgin and sign language, but I generally connect. Despite this microscopic point of view, I am confident Obama's promise electrified people in Europe, Turkey, and the Arab world during his 2008 campaign.
In fact, the impression he created boggled my mind. Once in a small shop in Syria, for example, a man of about 20, asked me in French, Syria's second language, if I was French or English. I responded, pointing to my chest, saying slowly, "Aameerikaa." He broke into a huge grin, put his arm around me, and started chanting "Obama, Obama, Obama," while pumping a "thumbs up" with his other hand, ending with a "high five." While this was an extreme example of the attitude, it was also typical in one sense: as soon as you said you were from the U.S., Europeans, Turks, or Arabs would start talking enthusiastically about Obama.
To be sure, I am only one guy, but I can say without exaggeration, this kind of enthusiasm was exhibited by at least ninety per cent of the people I saw (Israel excepted). Europeans, Turks, and Arabs really wanted Obama to win the election. More importantly, they were excited about the prospect of America moving onto a positive trajectory.
That enthusiasm is now a faded memory, but the frustration between the rising expectations he triggered and a stagnant reality is not.
Consider how far those hopes have fallen: Israel just humiliated President Obama by scuppering his belated attempts to revive the peace process (which even included an offer to buy off the Israelis with 20 more Joint Strike Fighters in return for a settlement freeze of only 90 days). Coming after his 2009 Cairo speech, the humiliation by the Israelis demonstrated either his helplessness or hypocrisy to the Arab world. The publication of the Palestinian Papers delegitimized Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority by revealing them to be Quislings and the peace process sponsored by the United States to be a fraud. The message could not be clearer: If Arab people want change, they must do it themselves.
So, while Obama did not create the inequalities at the root of discord, I think his empty rhetoric sharply widened the expectation-reality gap that is fueling the Arab Revolt of 2011. (For the record, Obama's candidacy and election made me feel proud to be an American and he is the only politician my wife and I have ever given money to.)