Obama’s Prague visit gets warm reception — and respect — even when he broaches unpopular topic

Citizens awaiting the arrival of President Obama
MinnPost photo by Henry Weiner
An estimated Prague crowd of 30,000 awaits Sunday’s arrival of President Obama.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The Communist Party still holds about 13 percent of the seats in Parliament. The recently deposed prime minister describes the new U.S. economic stimulus plan as a “road to hell,” and the nation’s president doesn’t believe in global warming or in cooperating with the European Union.

Add it all up and Prague may have seemed like a potentially hostile place for President Barack Obama to visit and offer a major policy speech Sunday morning.

But, as many Americans have experienced over the last decade, the actions of government officials — even in a representative government — oftentimes differ from the majority opinion of a people.

In Hradcanske Namesti, with the telegenic steeples of Prague Castle’s St. Vitus’ Cathedral as a backdrop, President Obama delivered a 30-minute speech to a predominantly supportive and enthusiastic crowd about Czech-American relations, nuclear arms proliferation and efforts for peace.

Getting in to see Obama was half the fun.

My roommate, Will, and I arrived at Prague Castle at 7:30 a.m., less than a half hour after the gates opened. Still, we barely managed to squeeze our way within about 200 feet of the president’s flower-festooned podium in Hradcany Square. 

Long wait a sign of enthusiasm
First, we waited in what passes for a “line” in the Czech Republic and then underwent a metal detector inspection — as well as a firm frisking — before entering the magnificent square. There, we were to wait for another two hours before there was any sign of the president. If this isn’t at least somewhat of an indication of the kind of international enthusiasm the new Obama administration has conjured up, I don’t know what is.

It was estimated that about 30,000 spectators were present and, at a glance, it appeared to me that about 30 to 40 percent of them were under age 25.  By my reckoning, I’d say that about 65 percent of the onlookers were Czech, 20 percent American students and travelers, with the remainder of the crowd composed of Italians, Brits and Germans, among others. 

With my luck, I ended up standing behind a group of five soccer moms who had just arrived from Spokane. They spent the entire two-hour waiting period before the speech discussing this week’s episodes of “Oprah.” 

I second-guessed my decision to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

As for Obama’s speech, it was, in some ways, safe and delicately worded. On the other hand, he didn’t sidestep the reasons he came to Bohemia. The president didn’t simply wish to try the goulash and pilsner.  He had an agenda: supporting a Czech-based missile defense system, asserting U.S. leadership in the fight against nuclear proliferation and, to a lesser extent, discussing the state of the world economy and energy matters.

President Obama in Prague
MinnPost photo by Henry Weiner
President Obama receives a warm Prague welcome Sunday.

A lackadaisical Czech bluegrass band did its best to suck the life from the anxiously waiting crowd, but the energy immediately escalated as the president finally arrived to hearty applause, accompanied by a sea of waving Czech and American flags.  He began his speech by touting first lady Michelle Obama’s beauty and thoroughly butchering the name of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk.

Then, he delved into the serious matters at hand. He outlined the means and the desired ends of his economic strategy to optimistic, but wary, even lukewarm, applause. He moved on to discuss the need for alternative sources of energy, an area where most of the Czech people seem to differ from their admittedly hardheaded President Vaclav Klaus, who holds a skeptical view on climate change.

Indeed, the show of support for the U.S. president will serve to further isolate Klaus domestically. The Czech president doesn’t have much power, other than the power to speak his mind. But Klaus is considered, especially among the younger crowd, to be on the fringes even here in his own country.

The main portion of Obama’s speech was devoted to NATO cooperation in fighting terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The president warned against a “fatalistic” view of the world in which the existence of nuclear weapons is inescapable. He received a thunderous response when he expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” 

On the whole, whenever Obama veered from the previous Bush administration, whether subtly or blatantly, he was greeted with overwhelming support.

Opposition, though, to missile defense system
The biggest hoorays of the morning came as Obama reiterated a new culture of cooperation and international joint action that many Europeans, especially Czechs, feel America had largely abandoned.  The most opposition from the crowd to his words arose with the mentioning of a proposed missile defense system that the Polish and Czech governments have agreed to host. 

Shouts of “No Radar!” were heard and balloons with slogans on them were tossed into the crowd, although many were grabbed and popped almost immediately by those who obviously didn’t feel the same way.

The missile defense system splits the Czech citizenry. Some with a more international bent think the “radar” is a necessary evil to check any Russian designs. A more leftist, but nationalistic, group opposes such a defense system, fearing it will provoke the Russians.

(Czechs generally loathe the Russians and really don’t have any problem telling you so.)

Overall, the day was good-natured and a positive experience for most present, with some of my friends going so far as to use the words “carnival” or “party” to describe the event.

But I think President Obama scored points with the Czechs because he challenged them on the missile defense system and on embracing an internationalist perspective.  He said things that, I’d guess, he knew might be unpopular.  He was sympathetic but straightforward. I think people respected that.

I have been studying in Prague for almost three months and have not found a better way to sum up the Czech feeling about America and its new president than a quote I got from a student named Petr, who I had the pleasure of sharing a beer with at a local pub.

He said: “People here used to love America, but with Bush it started to go sour. Now that Obama is here and America has a new face for the world to see, I think things will get better.  People want to like America again.” 

It is through these cautiously optimistic sunglasses that Czechs, shoulder to shoulder, viewed Obama Sunday in one of Prague’s most historic and picturesque squares.

Henry Weiner, of St. Paul, is a University of Wisconsin-Madison junior studying this year in Prague. He is the son of MinnPost writer Jay Weiner.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/06/2009 - 02:15 pm.

    It’s my understanding that in neither the Czech Republic nor Poland is there majority support for the U.S. anti-missile installation. The Bush people apparently promised goodies like eternal military protection to the leaders of these countries to get them to accept their placement.

    It’s interesting to hear that at least some Czechs believe the missiles are to protect against Russia. Russia has said the same, rightly feeling affronted at the possibility of the missiles being aimed at it. We, however, and Israel seem to be convinced that Iran (whom we believe without evidence has “intentions” to produce nuclear weapons and who has not invaded another country for 300 to 400 years) is the country to fear. Or so we say.

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 04/06/2009 - 03:58 pm.

    I thank Henry for writing this illuminating article.

    The quote that says it all was, “People here used to love America, but with Bush it started to go sour. Now that Obama is here and America has a new face for the world to see, I think things will get better. People want to like America again.” People won’t immediately like all American policies or forget their grievances, but electing such a different president gained us a new chance. Dropping Bush’s attitude that you’re with us or against us may be the single most important things Obama did.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/06/2009 - 04:22 pm.

    For which American outrage did Obama take responsibility and offer a sincere apology for during the Prague stop of his “We’re Not Worthy” World Tour ’09?

    Was it:

    A) The U.S. “Abu Graib policy”, which dictates that all prisoners of war will be humiliated by witless hillbilly and billyette guards.

    B) The imperialist Marshall Plan.

    C) American made global warming.

    D) New Coke.

    D) Madonna.

  4. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 04/06/2009 - 05:19 pm.

    In fact, after Obama’s bilateral meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during the G20 summit, Medvedev had commented that Russia might not have to launch counter-measures against the planned U.S. system, because of the positive indications coming from Obama. There has been no official Russian response to Obama’s remarks, as of this writing, but Lyndon LaRouche noted yesterday that Obama blew any agreement he may have thought he had made with the Russians, and that he was switching all the policies he had previously stated.

    The London Daily Telegraph chose to quote a Czech man-in-the- street saying: “Obama sounded like George W. Bush saying that we should be afraid in order to justify missile defense.”

    Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi protested against Obama’s “repetition of the past U.S. administration’s accusations” against Iran, and said they are not building a bomb, and that Iran and North Korea’s missile activities are not related

  5. Submitted by david granneman on 04/06/2009 - 08:06 pm.

    hello all
    it is ironic that on the same day president obama in turkey said “the united states is not now or ever will at war with muslims ” that the first pictures televised the return of the body of an american soldier killed by a road side bomb in afaganastan planted by a muslim.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/07/2009 - 11:12 am.

    Mr. Granneman: I’m afraid you don’t get it.

    Most of the Americans who tortured people at secret CIA prisons or at Guantanamo Bay were Christians. Does that mean all Christians are torturers?

    And does one roadside bomb planted by a citizen of a Muslim country (who would naturally be a Muslim) mean that all Muslims are terrorists?

    And do we really belong in Afghanistan? Or Iraq? Or firing drones into Pakistan in order to kill SUSPECTED terrorists without losing any troops ourselves? The War on Terror permits/encourages the U.S. to ignore boundaries and the sovereignty of nations into which we carry it.

  7. Submitted by david granneman on 04/07/2009 - 12:12 pm.

    hello bernice
    we need to be anywhere in the world where there are people planning how they can kill americans. these people are evil and the only way we can protect our selves from these evil people is to kill them wherever we find them. we did not attack them, they attacked inocent americans. these people are even willing to encourage their own children to become suicide bombers. my question to you is, what would you do if a murdering terrorist had information that if revealed could save members of your own family from being killed. would you torture to get this information or would you let your family die. i know what i would do. polls indicate that the vast majority of muslims favored the attack on the world trade center and pentagon and in some places celebrated openly the death of americans.

  8. Submitted by david granneman on 04/07/2009 - 05:15 pm.

    hello all
    Is president obama just another hack politician or is he just a plain good old fashioned liar.

    during the presidentional campaign professed over and over again that he was, in fact, a christian have been raised by his christian grandparents.

    yesterday in turkey president obama said he was a muslim having been raised by his muslin father.

    it seems president obama’s truth depends on to whom he is speaking to.

  9. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 04/08/2009 - 12:16 am.

    David,

    “Is president obama just another hack politician or is he just a plain good old fashioned liar.”

    Gee, thanks for the broad choices.

    “yesterday in turkey president obama said he was a muslim having been raised by his muslin father.”

    Please check out Obama’s speech. He never said that. Why would he when his father left when Obama was a toddler, so he never raised him?

  10. Submitted by david granneman on 04/08/2009 - 08:07 pm.

    “The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country I know, because I am one of them,” Obama said in his speech to parliament.

    a portion of obama’s speach in turkey.
    he states that he is ” a muslim american ” having lived in a muslim country.

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