You’ve probably heard stories of swooning foreign reporters, breathless international coverage, fawning headlines in many languages—and I can confirm that it’s all true. Having found myself at a London newspaper stand the day after the inauguration, I can attest to what many British and European newspapers chose to run on their front pages that morning: full-page photographs of President Barack Obama, most taken so as to show that crowd of 2 million people below him, all with triumphant headlines in large letters on top.
The rejoicing was not entirely unanimous, of course, not least because the frothy press coverage itself provoked some backlash. One British friend told me that while he’d enjoyed watching the inauguration, “this salvationist acclaim for a political redeemer worries me, since it shows the depth of the almost-universal despair.” Similar rumblings were heard elsewhere, too.
Yet there was also another, more negative category of foreign response to Obama’s inauguration that is worth noting, not so much because of what it tells us about our new president, but because of what it reveals about the responders. A number of international observers eschewed the general adulation and concluded, simply, that the entire event—the election, the inauguration—was a hoax.
Look, for a typical example, at Pravda.ru, the Russian Web site that succeeded the organ of the Soviet Communist Party. Writing in the spirit of the times past, one of its authors informed readers last week that Obama’s presidency was a sham. After all, he “became the president because one needed a scapegoat during hard times of the crisis,” and he will not last: “[I]f Obama does not manage to extricate the nation from the crisis in two or three years, the Republicans will unveil their real candidate, and Obama’s presidency will finish earlier than expected.” The American president is, in other words, merely a temporary placeholder—a description that makes him sound remarkably similar to the current president of Russia.
But Pravda.ru was not alone. One Chinese academic wrote that many of his compatriots were confident that the “impossible” election of Obama would be disrupted by “something dramatic, similar to John F. Kennedy’s assassination.” In the wake of the inauguration, one high-ranking official shifted the line somewhat and denounced the process, calling on China to build defenses against the “erroneous” ideas of Western democracy (Chinese television having been wary enough of these erroneous ideas to censor Obama’s inaugural address, even as it was being broadcast live).
Al-Qaida has been looking to discredit President Obama, too, mostly with nasty insults (he’s a “hypocrite,” a “killer,” even a “house Negro”) but also describing him as a frontman for the secret Zionist conspiracy. “This is Obama,” said Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s No. 2, “whom the American machine of lies tried to portray as the rescuer who will change the policy of America.”
I have, of course, chosen these quotations selectively: There were plenty of Chinese and Russian bloggers and journalists who wrote enthusiastically about the inauguration or at least didn’t think it was a giant coverup. As the Washington Post has pointed out, the very harshness of al-Qaida’s language may even reflect the fact that the U.S. president is being welcomed so warmly in much of the Islamic world.
Yet there will always be some who believe his election had to have been manipulated, simply because in their countries elections are always manipulated. The very idea that a relatively young, relatively unknown member of an ethnic minority could become president of the United States simply makes no sense in China, where national leaders are elderly men who have spent decades in the service of the Communist Party. Nor is it logical in Russia, where the outcome of elections is always known well in advance and transfer of power always takes place under the shadow of secret conspiracy. Nor, of course, could it ever seem plausible to the jihadist fringe, a group whose members are defined by the fact that they believe “change” is something you achieve with mass terror.
Nor even does the election make sense to some Americans (type “Obama” and “hoax” into your search engine of choice and see what I mean). Still, most of us have gotten used to the idea that electoral outcomes cannot always be determined by the political establishment in advance. We’ve also elected, in recent memory, improbable presidents from Arkansas and Georgia; have survived presidential resignations and impeachments; have gotten used to (even blasé about) black men and women running our foreign policy. One’s perception of the present is shaped by one’s experience of the past, and our experience is that democracy, at least when it works, is messy and unpredictable—which is precisely why it seems so implausible to others.