November 21, 2014
When giants meet
Given the chronic inferiority complex of many Argentines with the United States, Thursday’s meeting between Pope Francis and US President Barack Obama was something of a landmark. For once the Argentine was on more than equal terms — not only does Francis head a flock more than thrice the number of the US population but he outranks him according to the ultramodern criterion of Facebook (occupying third place as against Obama’s sixth). And if Obama was on away ground in his visit to the Vatican last Thursday, the Argentine pope even outstrips him on his home turf — Pope Francis enjoys the respect of around 75 percent of US public opinion while approval ratings have sunk to not much above 40 percent for an Obama weighed down by international crises, snoopage scams and Congress gridlock. Nor is this contrast entirely accidental because in many ways Pope Francis today incarnates the same kind of hopes inspired by Obama five or six years ago.
For a complete comparison, we would need to see ahead to papal popularity around the year 2020 but even today the contrast is not entirely fair. Thus taking the situation in Syria, all Francis has to do is to summon the world to a day of prayers for peace (after all, the Pope has no army divisions, as Stalin pointed out several decades ago) — it is Obama who is confronted with the agonizing decision of weighing the costs of intervention and escalation against continued slaughter in the Middle East. Anywhere in the world popularity always comes easier if you are not obliged to govern.
But regardless of how odious comparisons might be, it was clear last week at least that Obama needs Francis distinctly more than vice versa — not least among the ever-growing “Hispanic” minority in the US with immigration laws at stake. The need is clearly greater than the natural affinity — despite a common rhetoric against world poverty, there are fundamental differences over issues like abortion (where quite apart from the conflicting views over the right to life, the Vatican feels that US health legislation denies conscientious objection), issues which have transformed US Catholics from an overwhelmingly Democratic to a largely Republican constituency in the last couple of generations. But Francis also needs the New World against the Vatican’s European establishment as the first pontiff from the Americas. All in all, an interesting meeting between two very different men but strangely united by WikiLeaks and VatiLeaks.