Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Obama's World

By Ryan Glim for the Politico:

The sensation that is Barack Obama knows no borders.

Global interest in the 2008 U.S. presidential race, and particularly in the junior senator from Illinois, has triggered intense media coverage overseas. And one thing is clear: Obama plays well way beyond Peoria — in Tokyo, London, Frankfurt and Nairobi.

In late February, Asahi TV, one of Japan's top networks, broadcast a special on the Democratic presidential hopeful that sent its ratings soaring, said Washington bureau chief Tadayoshi Ii.

Japanese audiences are more familiar, of course, with another top-tier Democratic contender, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who always draws top ratings to his network's broadcasts, Ii said.

"Historically, they've known Hillary Clinton a long time," he said, speaking through associate producer Desdemona Keeler, who translated.

Now, Obama has become the first and only candidate to equal Clinton's star power in Tokyo, Ii said, adding: "Other candidates, not so much."

Correspondents covering the presidential race for other countries say foreign interest in the 2008 race is significantly higher at this point than it has been in past presidential campaigns.

Marco Bardazzi, a Washington-based correspondent for the ANSA Italian News Agency, which serves audiences in Latin America in addition to Italy, has covered two U.S. presidential campaigns during his time in Washington.

"Hillary and Barack are the big stars as far as the coverage is concerned. For us to have Italian journalists traveling to Springfield, Illinois, two years before the election is, by Italian standards, crazy," Bardazzi said.

But Italians also have special interest in former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bardazzi said, "since he is an Italian-American and a very well known figure in Italy." Giuliani, who has said he's running for the GOP nomination but has yet to formally announce, has family roots that go back to Tuscany and the Caserta area, near Naples.

Though the German public is more subdued, interest in Obama is intense there, too, said Dietmar Ostermann, the Washington correspondent for Frankfurter Rundschau, a German daily newspaper.

Ostermann traveled to Chicago to look into Obama's background, interviewing residents of Altgeld Gardens, a community that Obama helped organize. His editors are clamoring for more, Ostermann said, but he's trying to keep it in perspective.

"Everything's early this year. I personally try to get not too much carried away because I know we'll do all these stories again in four months or so," he said.

On March 1, Ostermann wrote a piece on Sen. John McCain's announcement that he would announce for president, which the Arizona Republican made last week on "The Late Show With David Letterman." That was Ostermann's first story about a Republican candidate, he said.

The British press has shown similar interest in Obama, said Rupert Cornwell, Washington bureau chief for the London Independent, also a daily. Cornwell traveled to Springfield for Obama's announcement with about two dozen other members of the foreign press.

"The fact is, because of this country's importance and all its recent screw-ups, the politics of the succession of George W. Bush are watched like a hawk," he said. "I get the sense British readers are more interested in American politics than British politics."

One exception to Globamamania is Latin America. Marcelo Raimon, a reporter for ANSA who writes for a broad Latin American audience, said that Clinton is still the most famous candidate there but that the spat between her and Obama over Hollywood donors attracted much attention in the region.

The political figure who has gotten the Obama treatment recently, though, has been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Raimon. Latin America is "fascinated" by Pelosi, largely because "South America is very matriarchal," he said.

Italians have similar interest in Pelosi, owing in part to her Italian roots, which the Italian media traced to Genoa. "She's not only the first woman speaker, but the first Italian speaker," Bardazzi pointed out.

Perhaps surprisingly, the continent showing the least interest in Obama is Africa, with the exception of the country his father came from, said Katy Gabel, an assistant editor with AllAfrica.com, which collects news from Africa and distributes it to readers in the U.S. "We've been seeing a lot of articles about Obama coming out of Kenya," she said.

As always, the closer you get to the ground, the more complicated the picture becomes. To Americans, Obama's paternal roots are generically African. But media correspondents — and audiences — in Africa are more aware of regional and tribal differences.

Writing in Uganda's Monitor on Feb. 22, columnist Omar Kalinge Nnyago wrote about Obama and his father, who belonged to the Dholuo tribe.

" … I can see my Dholuo friends … walking the streets of Nairobi with a gait, with that look on the face that says: 'When you refused to let us rule Kenya, we went to rule America,' " he wrote, referring to an Obama victory.

But that doesn't mean everyone in Obama's ancestral home would be happy. Wrote Nnyago: "I see one or two prominent Kenyan tribes not particularly excited to have a Dholuo at the White House."
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