Politics & Government

For Americans abroad, bridges symbolize their Obama hopes

Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a town hall-style meeting in Fairfax, Va., Thursday July 10.
Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a town hall-style meeting in Fairfax, Va., Thursday July 10. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

LONDON — From Australia to South Africa, from the Bosporus to northern France, American fans of Barack Obama have been staging rallies abroad at world-famous bridges to show support for the Democratic presidential candidate and his pledge to span old political divisions.

As Obama prepares his first overseas trip as a presidential candidate in the next week, with stops in the Middle East as well as Berlin, Paris and London, Democrats abroad are looking to him to refurbish the reputation of the United States after the tarnishing of the Iraq war and Guantanamo.

Europeans as well see him as the odds-on favorite over Republican rival John McCain. A poll in London's Guardian newspaper Monday showed Obama winning over 53 percent of the British public, compared with 11 percent for McCain, with 36 percent undecided. Similar polls in Germany and France also show overwhelming support for Obama.

The "Obama bridge" project was the brainchild of Meredith Wheeler, an American expatriate who's living in a small village in the south of France, but it's been embraced across Europe and well beyond. There have been at least nine bridge rallies in France — from the Pont Neuf in Paris to an ultramodern viaduct at Millau in southern France — and multiple events in Germany and Britain.

Organizers have filmed bridge rallies in at least 34 countries, including at the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the bridge across the Bosporus in Turkey. Turnout has ranged from a handful to a few hundred, and organizers plan to give Obama a video montage of the rallies at the Democratic convention in August.

For Americans living abroad, the bridge project points to the divide that's opened between the Bush administration and much of the world in recent years over issues such as Iraq, the war on terrorism and climate change. There's "a real desire to see the back end of this administration," said Bill Barnard, a historian and political activist from Alabama who chairs Democrats Abroad in Britain.

Democratic Party officials throughout Europe say that their membership ranks have surged in the past year, and primary election turnout was heavy among Americans overseas: In France, for instance, three times as many ballots were cast as in the previous primary, and 71 percent of those voters chose Obama over Hillary Clinton. In several countries, "Republicans for Obama" groups have formed.

He's also captured the imagination of many foreigners, who can't vote in November. The new poll in Britain shows that the Illinois senator's support spans all ages and demographic groups, with notably strong support among men, 57 percent of whom said they wanted him to become president.

His multiracial background has struck a particular chord in countries with big minority populations, such as France, sparking discussions about whether they could ever produce viable minority candidates of their own.

At an exposition on Caribbean culture in Paris, a stand sold red, white and blue boxes emblazoned with Obama's image. Inside the box were candies that were half milk chocolate and half white chocolate.

Most Obama fans in Europe who're hoping for a glimpse of the candidate at a boisterous, American-style campaign rally probably will be disappointed. A key goal of this trip is to bolster Obama's foreign-policy credentials and build relationships with foreign leaders. The bulk of his visit will be dedicated to meetings with heads of state and government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain.

While Germany, France and Italy have installed more conservative figures at the helm in recent years, many center-right parties in Europe are more ideologically aligned with America's Democrats than with the Republicans. They'll be especially keen to discuss his views on the Middle East, including Israel and Iran. His thinking on Afghanistan, where NATO countries have troops stationed, also will be of special interest.

About the only opportunity for Obama to address a large crowd is likely to come in Berlin, where he intends to deliver a major address on trans-Atlantic relations. But the plan has gotten bogged down by controversy over the venue.

Obama's advance staff favored the Brandenburg Gate, one of the city's great landmarks, the place where John F. Kennedy spoke and a reminder of decades of struggle between East and West. Merkel, a Christian Democrat, has been cool to the plan, but it has the support of her vice chancellor, Frank Walter Steinmeier, and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, both of whom are Social Democrats. Obama's aides are considering whether to find another venue in the city.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)