PARIS: If Barack Obama is elected president of the United States next week, he'll bring into office with him the advantage of not being pre-cast as a villain in Europe.
As pluses go, it may be an impermanent one.
The realities of American interests, American responsibilities and the American presidency mean that all the soft power instincts and readiness for multilateral mosh-pit politicking attributed to Obama by Europeans can quickly look imaginary.
Exhibit A: On Saturday a news report said that France no longer expected that the president-elect, presumably Obama, would attend an international financial crisis summit meeting of 20 countries that Nicolas Sarkozy organized with George W. Bush's backing for Nov. 15 in Washington.
Sarkozy keenly wanted the legitimacy of the newly elected leader's participation. By way of a response, Obama said, in effect, that the United States had one president at a time.
This was a direct peek into the real future.
It meant America had its own crisis to deal with first, Obama was not going to muddle his priorities, and that a more specific international response could be coordinated once his own plan for national and global financial reform was on its feet.
This is the Obama who says, like John McCain, that his goal is to keep America the most powerful country on Earth.
Obama is not Michael Moore transmogrified. He will fulfill no one's dreams of a capitulating, apologetic United States.
If you hold up some of the basics making up Obama's view of America in the world - the necessity on occasion for a role as global sheriff ("This will not change, nor should it," he says); and no United Nations veto over specific unilateral military action by the United States - then his statement that "we're no longer about bluster and unilateralism and ideology" could be one largely promising greater patience in diplomacy, more finesse and better salesmanship.
Clearly, Europeans like and believe Obama when he says that he cares about what others think and that America must listen to them.
But just as clearly there are reservations. America is a political and economic culture unto itself, and the CSA polling organization, which found 93 percent of the French would vote for Obama if they had the chance, also reported that the enthusiasm for him "doesn't reoccur when it comes to the United States."
Only 2 in 10 of Obama's supporters, it said, want Europe and France to move closer to American positions.
Do these respondents understand or support Obama's will to keep America, as he says, the most powerful country in the world?
In fact, Josselin de Rohan, the Gaullist chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the French Senate, has suggested that there are many here who just don't get it when it comes to recognizing Obama's bottom line.
The question of Europe really hearing all that Obama says goes to other issues. I haven't found any research that would support the theory, but my guess is also that Europeans have only the faintest idea that Obama accepts the death penalty and won't fight for gun control, two eternal American sins as seen from abroad.
Soft power? Europe loves the notion (which rationalizes its low defense budgets) and tends to assign a virtue it sees in itself to Obama. Yet here's how the Democrat came out, in his last debate with McCain, on a centrally soft concern - education:
"It probably has more to do with our economic future than anything and that means it has a national security implication because there never has been a nation on Earth that saw its economy decline and continued to maintain its primacy as a military power. So we've got to get our education system right."
On Iran, there is little indication that European public opinion is listening closely either when Obama says, "We'll never take the military option off the table." Or on Georgia and Ukraine, when Obama insists that they must be given plans for NATO membership "immediately." Or on Afghanistan when he complains that some NATO countries, like Germany, are present there but not sharing the missions with the most murderous risks.
This also goes in part for Iraq. It would be Obama's America alone that has to make the decisions. When asked four years ago about French and German criticism of the Iraq war, Joe Biden, Obama's running mate, caricatured European leaders telling him they would have done things better:
"Blah blah blah, international cooperation," he mocked. "Give me a break, huh."
Things are not entirely different in terms of economic and financial reform. Obviously, there is wide international agreement on the need for better regulation of irresponsible, nonproductive activities. But from the standpoint of American business culture and its dynamism, there would be limits to the new rules.
David Sturtevant Ruder, a former chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission, America's market regulator, who has endorsed Obama, sees American capitalism eventually coming out of this "horrible situation" with a better version that's "a little tamer" and "a little more regulated."
He added: "But this country is built on an appetite for risk. We don't want to be France."
Almost surely, a newly elected President Obama would be too slick to tell the truth that way.
He would be following Bill Clinton, once described by Denis MacShane, then minister for Europe in Tony Blair's cabinet, as "a Social Democrat who put Europe on Valium, who could schmooze Europe, talk European."
In spite of those skills, Obama may take note of this shard from the history of American interests during Clinton's last years in office:
When the United States agreed to choose bombing targets by consensus with its European allies during the conflict with Serbia, the arguments and indecision were such that Clinton, in despair and in clear American, was heard saying: Never, never again
6 months ago