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Hope From Abroad

Mitch"So how do you think Obama is doing?"

The question came not once but many times during a trip this past week to Ireland and England. From friends. From journalists. Even cab drivers.

"How do you think Obama is doing?'

It was not asked the way we might ask it here, in an evaluative way -- Do you like him? Do you not like him? How do you think he's doing? -- but rather in an almost hopeful tone, the way one mother might ask another mother about her son's progress in a new school. How do you think he's doing? The desired answer, you could tell, was, "Wonderful."

So it seems that, one year after his election, Barack Obama still remains an idea of an ideal in places overseas, including the parts I visited. I was amazed at the uniformity of the admiration of the man, as if it were something any sane person would agree on, no different than saying Shakespeare was a good writer or Mother Teresa had a good heart.

With each inquiry, I tried to explain that, to the majority of Americans, Obama is a president, that we didn't elect him because of his skin color, that we didn't elect him as a symbol, that we elected him because we wanted a change and because the majority of the country felt he was the best candidate to do it.

A shining light for the world

But just as a pebble, when thrown in a pond, creates ripples larger than itself, so, too, in parts of the world, does Obama ripple larger than his daily splash in the American spotlight.

The Irish and British attitudes I observed were almost defensive. Some were surprised, for example, that I had been at all critical of Obama's getting the Nobel Peace Prize. When I tried to explain that I would rather see him get it two years from now -- which would mean there would be tangible change to measure -- they seemed disappointed that I didn't think tangible change already had transpired.

And upon thinking about it, although I was bothered at first by the nature of their questions (after all, I said, average Americans don't need a symbol, we need someone to get our budget in line, to put people to work, to ensure our military is both strong yet safe, to get the Senate and the House to work together), upon further reflection, I think I see a positive in all this.

And here is the positive.

Despite the bashing the United States takes in many corners of the world, it clearly remains a country of inspiration unlike any other. People still look to America to pave a way. To set a tone. To show that what seems impossible in some places -- democracy, peace, prosperity -- is very real between our shores.

Most U.S. citizens couldn't care less about who governs Italy, Norway, Nigeria or, for that matter, the United Kingdom. It doesn't really matter to us,

But who governs America matters to a lot of people.

An opportunity to lead

I think this makes us unique. The world wants to believe in us. It waits anxiously for an American compass turn. Sure, this may decrease as our economy gets overshadowed by places like China, but ideologically, no one is looking to China with anything more than fear.

America they look at with hope.

It doesn't mean Obama should live in that atmosphere. His job is to do for his people, to serve them and their needs, not his legend or a global coronation. It is why we can and should scrutinize him a much as any president, to do less would be to suggest that somehow his history and ethnicity gave him a free pass.

No free passes. Not in our eyes. And there shouldn't be one in foreigners' eyes. But it is the beauty of America ideal that countries much older still look our way for inspiration. So when they want to know how he's doing, I say he's doing the best he can and time will tell.

And I do thank them for asking. Because in a certain way, as an American, the question is a compliment.

(C) 2009 BY THE DETROIT FREE PRESS DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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