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Germans hoping to get past 'Bush-fatigue'

MAINZ, Germany – It's not surprising Germans are fascinated with the American election; it's colorful and flashy when compared with the usually staid German political process.

Even German politicians admit that they are impressed by the numbers of supporters at U.S. campaign events and especially envy the American parties' financial budgets.

"There are clearly cultural and structural differences between the two countries. In Germany, for example, the entire election spending of all parties adds up to only $85 million," said Dirk Metz, a spokesperson for the local state government in Wiesbaden, in comparison to the hundreds of millions spent by both the Democrats and the Republicans in their race for the White House.

VIDEO: Germans looking for a 'change' in U.S. relations via the new president

But, in general, Germans are clearly just interested in American politics. When the candidates' television debates were shown recently in the early morning hours in Germany – the usually marginal middle-of-the-night ratings surged.

The interest likely stems from the desire among the general public in Germany to overcome what has been dubbed "Bush-fatigue." A generally negative sentiment towards the Bush administration that has been nurtured over the past eight years by Germany's anti-war stance, as well as the "old Europe" and "with us or against us" remarks by U.S. officials.

But while many Germans favor the fresh face of Sen. Barack Obama, it's yet to be seen if he is really the best candidate for German interests.

Germany and the United States have enjoyed close political ties for decades, a transatlantic friendship that grew after the end of World War II. Pictures of the Berlin Airlift, economic support through America's Marshall Plan and historic speeches by former U.S. presidents, such as John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner," and Ronald Reagan's "Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!", still trigger vivid memories for many Germans – especially among those living in the once-divided capital, Berlin.

So it should come as no surprise that Germany would seem like fertile ground for a speech by a U.S presidential candidate. But, even optimistic experts were surprised to see Obama's speech draw a crowd of more than 200,000 people when he visited Berlin in July.  

Most likely the crowds were drawn by a mixture of curiosity about the new-kid-on-the-block, the sense of a possibly historic moment, and media hype over controversy about the speech location.

But really, other than bad news about the world's financial meltdown, the U.S. presidential race has dominated German magazines and newspaper headlines for months – with Obama usually portrayed as a positive change, and Sen. John McCain usually less so.

Both candidates have been featured as cover stories in Germany's top-selling Der Spiegel magazine. The German weekly described Obama's popularity as "The Messiah Factor, Barack Obama and the yearning for a new America" in a front-page feature.

But when McCain got his Der Spiegel cover moment, the headline was "The Cold Warrior," suggesting that McCain is yet another representative of Bush's unpopular foreign policies – not exactly the "messiah" moment Obama was treated to.

Manfred Goertemaker, a professor at the University of Potsdam, explained that justified or not, many of the negative feelings Germans feel for President Bush have rubbed off on McCain.

"In the past eight years, the German media and the German public have been very critical toward George W. Bush. This negative image also reflects on the Republican Party as a whole and therefore Germans clearly favor Mr. Obama," said Goertemaker.

There is no doubt that a majority of Germans back Obama. A recent poll by the German Marshall Fund shows that 69 percent of Europeans favor Obama, while only 26 percent support the significantly less well known McCain. Likewise, a BBC News world poll found that 61 percent of Germans favored Obama over McCain. And Reader's Digest Global Presidential Poll found that a full 85 percent of Germans support Obama, over just 7 percent for McCain.  

Who would be better for Germany?

But, popularity left aside, who would be better for Germany?

Experts warn that Obama would not necessarily be an "easy president" when it comes to German interests. In regard to the mission in Afghanistan, for example, Obama has repeatedly called for stronger European commitment, while Germany and other European nations have been hesitant to increase troop levels and support combat missions.

"For the general public, and even some German politicians, the candidates' stances on foreign policy and their actual political programs are still very nebulous, but many experts say that McCain knows Europe much better than Obama," explained Goertemaker.

McCain has actually been a regular visitor to the annual Munich Security Conference, which gave him opportunities to meet with European politicians and security experts in the past. And, his advisor for transatlantic issues is Richard Burt, who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany between 1985 and 1989.

And there are a number of foreign policy challenges that could still lead to tensions between Europe and the United States, regardless of who is the next president – differences in opinion over the relationship with Russia, how to handle Iran, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the financial crisis are just a few of the issues that could rattle trans-Atlantic relations.

Given the results of a number of recent polls, there is a very good chance that America's overall image will improve on an international level, if Obama wins in November. But, experts here in Germany say that enthusiasm for Obama might not necessarily translate into closer transatlantic ties.

"If Obama is elected, it is likely that Germans will experience an anticlimax after a few months because many expectations were projected on Mr.Obama – expectations which he may have difficulties fulfilling," Christoph von Marschall, the Washington correspondent for Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper and author of a book about Obama, cautioned at a discussion about the U.S. elections here this week.

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