They still believe in him, but President Obama's policies leave Czechs wanting

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010; A02

PRAGUE -- Martina Delisova noticed something different about President Obama during his visit here this week to sign a new arms treaty with Russia: He has more gray hair.

The 38-year-old Prague actress and mother of two had high hopes for the new American president after his first visit to the Czech Republic a year ago, when he received a rapturous reception for a speech at Prague Castle.

Delisova wants a world for her son without guns and war, and was impressed by Obama's pledge that day in 2009 to rid the globe of nuclear weapons. Since then, she said, Obama has seemed more diplomatic, more pragmatic, less able to change things quickly.

"I still believe that the goals he set out to meet, he still wants to do them, even if some of the steps he's taking now seem to be in the opposite direction," she said as she pushed a stroller through downtown Prague, citing Obama's decision to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. But she added: "I still believe in him."

A year after thousands of people packed the city's castle courtyard for a glimpse of Obama and his wife, the American president remains admired by many people here. They call him "likable" and "hopeful," and many still say he is an improvement over former president George W. Bush.

But after 15 months in office, there also are plenty of shrugs when you ask Czechs about Obama. Not a lot has changed here, or in Europe more broadly, since Americans elected a new leader in November 2008.

Unemployment remains high, caused by a plunge in worldwide tourism and lower demand for goods in this export-driven economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to irritate Europeans, many of whom have a low tolerance for conflict. And Obama's tenure has had little impact on the life of the average Czech.

"I don't have some special opinion of him. American politics is very far from us," said Pavel Jirka, 37, a public procurement consultant. "He is very good in his speeches. I am not sure if he is so successful in his work."

One young woman at a shopping mall in downtown Prague offered simply: "I definitely love him." Another said the big expectations for Obama on health care, the economic crisis and foreign policy were not fulfilled, but added: "I realize that was not realistic."

Obama returned to Prague this week to formalize a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in a setting rich with history. Politicians welcomed his second visit as an indication of a new seriousness by the U.S. government to engage with the problems of Europe.

Lubomir Zaoralek, deputy chairman of the Czech Chamber of Deputies and a leading voice in the country's foreign policy establishment, said in an interview that Obama has brought "careful change . . . not revolution" to America's relationship with Europe.

Zaoralek said Obama succeeded in quickly changing the atmosphere in U.S. foreign relations. But he said it appears the president has been "consumed" by domestic politics.

"Now, it seems to me, it's a chance after his great success in health care to shift to concrete steps in the area of foreign policy," Zaoralek said, pointing to the nuclear treaty as a good first step.

On the streets of Prague, however, residents were less concerned with weighty issues such as treaties and relations between nations. In more than a dozen interviews Friday morning, most people talked about their impressions of Obama from television.

"I only know him through the media," said Jan Lukes, 34, a city transportation worker. Lukes described Obama as a "likable person" but said the American president does not seem as tough as his predecessors. "When I compare to presidents who were tough and uncompromising, he's softer. He turns to compromise. We're not used to politicians who are this way," Lukes said.

Law student Michal Marinov, 25, has a positive reaction to Obama. "I like him. I think he's intelligent," he said. "He speaks better than George W. Bush."

Obama's speechmaking was a common theme among Prague residents. Most said they remembered his April speech last year, in which he called for a world free of nuclear weapons. In that speech, the president went out of his way to praise the "unconquerable spirit" of the people of Prague.

Frantisek Vacek, 78, a French language interpreter, likes Obama but says the big issue involving the president is Afghanistan, a war that Vacek called "complicated."

"To finish it would be good," he said. "But how?"

Like others, Vacek is still waiting to see whether the expectations for Obama, which were so high a year ago, can be realized.

"We are not disappointed by his policies," he said Friday morning, then quickly added: "Yet."

Special correspondent Jan Stojaspal contributed to this report.

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