ROME — The day after president-elect Barack Obama gave his victory speech in Chicago, Italy’s Democratic Leader Walter Veltroni celebrated with a rally at the Pantheon in Rome.
Meanwhile, center-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi congratulated Obama by praising his personal qualities, calling him “young, handsome and even sun-tanned.”
Political analysts from Italy’s younger generation say that both Berlusconi and Veltroni failed to understand the message behind Obama’s victory.
Three days after the U.S. election, large posters were plastered throughout the city by a youth arm of the right-wing political party. They contrasted the image of a smiling Obama and the words “Yes he can” with one of Veltroni and the words “No you can’t.”
They reminded Veltroni and Italians of his defeat by three-time Prime Minister Berlusconi in April’s national election.
Obama “is like a UFO because he is so far from what we know,” said Giuliano Da Empoli, author of “Obama: Politics in the Facebook Era." Even his most persistent fans didn’t believe that Obama would win, he added. “To us, it’s inconceivable that such an outsider could reach that position.”
Da Empoli’s is not an uncommon opinion here.
In Italy, politicians are perceived as people who hold privileges and power as members of the establishment. Traditionally, they become frontrunners based only on their party’s support rather than with a grassroots movement. For that reason, Italian Democrats were reluctant to believe that someone like Obama could actually win.
“There are two kinds of Obamians,” said Maura Satta Flores, who works for a public policy PR agency in Italy. “The Facade Obamians and those who understood the message.”
Following the U.S. election, those who really understood left their offices and began creating networks.
“Among the non-politicians, young people were definitely the most affected by Obama’s message and communication style,” said Flores.
One such fan, a 21-year-old law student from Rome named Vittorio Occorsio, organized an Obama convention in Italy. His efforts brought close to 700 fans and politicians under one roof to send a message that Obama represented the politician of the new millennium in Italy, too.
“Everything is possible in the United States, but if you work really hard it can be possible in Italy too,” said Occorsio. “I might be a dreamer, but I still believe it.”
Occorsio grew up in Italy, but was born in New York and holds dual citizenship. Last November, he cast his vote for Obama.
“As an American I followed him because I believe in him, but as an Italian, Obama means even more,” said Occorsio.
Working in a dim loft in the heart of Rome’s university district, a 33-year-old political junkie named Paolo Guarino, who owns more than a dozen “Vote for Obama” buttons, is less optimistic.
“I don’t think an Italian Obama will come fast or easy,” said Guarino, who has worked as a campaign advisor in Rome for the past eight years. “First we need to change some rules in our political system,” he said.
Inspired by Obama’s message of change, Guarino traveled to Denver for the Democratic National Convention to witness the candidate in action. He returned impressed at how Obama’s charisma turned large crowds into enthusiastic believers.
But, he said, Italy is still far from producing a candidate who can inspire voters in a similar way.
“As of now,” said Guarino, “I think there are only two people in the world who are still talking about hope, Obama and the Pope.”