Doing the Continental

Everyone who has ventured on a European trip has some embarrassing story to tell about it, but President Barack Obama’s recent continental tour could top them all. The president’s recent trip to Ireland and Germany featured enough gaffes, big and small, to fill two or three sequels to “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”
One of Obama’s smaller gaffes was repeatedly mistaking United Kingdom Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne for rhythm and blues singer Jeffrey Osborne. The confusion prompted much hilarity among the British press, which seems to believe that the old school rhythm and bluesman would do a better job of managing England’s red-ink-soaked finances than the Oxford-educated bureaucrat, but George Osborne politely laughed it off. Obama’s mistake was also laughed off by the American press, which would likely have been more appalled had a Republican president made the same error, and eventually it will be offered as proof of the president’s up-to-date tastes in music. Had he been more of a heavy metal enthusiast Obama might have called the Chancellor “Ozzy,” arguably a more insulting error, but at least he would have been getting the nationality right.
A more significant and deliberate error occurred when Obama lectured an Irish audience that Catholic schools are “divisive.” The remark offended many Catholics throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, and was widely viewed as further proof of Obama’s animus toward religion. Although we are quite Protestant by temperament as well as theological conviction, we also found the claim offensive as well as bizarre. The Catholic church has been in the education business for many centuries and has become quite good at it, judging by the Catholic-educated people we know, and we’ve not noticed any divisive effects. Unless Obama was speaking for the benefit of pubic school teachers’ union members back home, or is still miffed by the church’s obstinate rejection of his views on contraception, or somehow prefers the Islamic madrassas of his own youth, we can not imagine why he should insult Catholic schools while in a majority-Catholic country.
A couple thousand die-hard fans still showed up to cheer Obama while he was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but like a fading rock star whose biggest hits are in the past he found that at every stop the crowds were conspicuously smaller than on past tours. When he returned to Berlin, where a Woodstock-sized throng of adorers were enrapt by his oratory back in the heady days of ’08, Obama found himself speaking behind a bullet-proof glass wall to a modest 4,500 or so polite listeners. He pulled out all the tried-and-true crowd-pleasers from his repertoire, reaching all the way back to the ‘80s for some nuclear disarmament rhetoric, but the speech was universally panned by a suddenly disgruntled European press and back home the media cheerleader Chris Matthews was reduced to blaming the poor reaction on the sun glaring too harshly on the presidential teleprompter.
All of which is embarrassing, but largely inconsequential. The more significant problem was that the European political leadership seemed just as unimpressed, and as a result Obama failed to achieve much of anything but another round of golf. Germany’s Angela Merkel publicly scolded the president about his National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering techniques, an issue of personal interest to a woman who grew up in East Germany under Stasi’s constant surveillance, and we expect that in private she also had a few things to say about his economic policies. Russia Vladimir Putin offered no concessions regarding the Syrian civil war, icily explaining to the press that “Our views do not coincide,” and his public encounters with the president demonstrated that Russo-American relations have not been reset to any positive effect.
The trip was bad enough that Obama should be glad to get back to the United States, where the stock market is crashing, scandals are mounting, the Obamacare train is wrecking, but a restful week of vacation in Martha’s Vineyard awaits. All the fading rock stars vacation there, and they could have a good time swapping stories about their European tours.

— Bud Norman