Snubbed by Obama
Barack Obama is on his way to Europe, where an adoring public awaits. But I wonder if the reception would be quite so enthusiastic if Obama's fans across the Atlantic knew a dirty little secret of his remarkable presidential campaign: Although Obama portrays himself as the best candidate to engage the rest of the world and restore America's image abroad, and many Americans support him for that reason, so far he has almost completely refused to answer questions from foreign journalists. When the press plane leaves tonight for his trip, there will be, as far as I know, no foreign media aboard. The Obama campaign has refused multiple requests from international reporters to travel with the candidate.
As a German correspondent in Washington, I am accustomed to the fact that American politicians spare little of their limited time for reporters from abroad. This is understandable: Our readers, viewers and listeners cannot vote in U.S. elections. Even so, Obama's opponents have managed to make at least a small amount of time for international journalists. John McCain has given many interviews. Hillary Clinton gave a few. President Bush regularly holds round-table interviews with media from the countries to which he travels. Only Obama dismisses us so consistently.
This spring Obama allowed at least one foreign reporter on trips to Ohio and Texas. But as the campaign has progressed, access has become more difficult for foreign correspondents. E-mail inquiries get no reply, phone calls are not returned. My colleagues and I know: We are last in line. We don't matter.
In September 2007, I gave a lecture in Iowa titled "The U.S. in the World: How They See Us." People in the audience asked me about the working conditions of foreign journalists and were surprised to learn how little access Obama had given us. Several Iowans wrote to his campaign to protest. In contrast to me, they did hear back: In a letter dated Nov. 24, the campaign assured one of these people that Obama cares about the foreign media and wants to increase openness. The letter even said that my contact information had been forwarded to the campaign's communications department.
There was no follow-up.
Since I followed the Obama campaign in its early stages and published a sympathetic (and widely read) book in German about the Illinois senator, I probably have more access than most. I know the Obama "policy advisers" in Washington think tanks and the like; sometimes I manage a fleeting encounter with the senator's press staff at campaign events. Yet I can only dream of an interview with the candidate. To my knowledge, no foreign journalist has had one. A reported interview in France's Politique Internationale last summer turned out to be a fake. In February, Obama gave Israel's Yediot Ahronot written answers to written questions about his views on Israel and the Middle East.
Perhaps Obama considers members of the foreign media a risk rather than an opportunity. His campaign learned the hard way how comments to foreigners can resonate at home -- recall adviser Austan Goolsbee's hints to a Canadian diplomat that Obama's critique of NAFTA was just campaign rhetoric, or former aide Samantha Power's "monster" remark about Hillary Clinton to the Scotsman. Or perhaps we're witnessing the arrogance that comes from being so close to power. One of his campaign advisers told me recently: "Why should we take the time for foreign media, since there is Obamania around the world?"
Obama is indeed popular in my country and elsewhere in Europe. But Europeans have the same questions about his experience and character that Americans do. Unlike U.S. citizens, we can't vote in the election; its results, though, will affect our lives, much as it will affect theirs. Surely a man who has said he would talk with U.S. adversaries such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can spend a few moments with journalists from friendlier countries.
The writer is Washington bureau chief of Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin-based daily newspaper.