WASHINGTON—Foreign leaders and journalists often joke that the whole world should get to vote in U.S. elections since the outcome affects the entire planet. His recent setback in New Hampshire notwithstanding, an intense scrutiny of Barack Obama is taking place from Buenos Aires to Paris. But what observers and politicians are saying about him is what they are really saying about their own societies.

In Europe, one senses a quiet shame. The left, which loves to criticize the Unites States for its imperial foreign policy and its discrimination against blacks and Hispanics, is not really saluting Obama. There have been few gushing articles in Italy’s La Repubblica or France’s Le Monde. And by sending the message that it might be ready to elect an African-American, a part of mainstream America is showing the industrialized world a more open-minded attitude than the United States usually gets credit for. This is particularly embarrassing in socialist Europe. Contrast the attitude of those white Americans who are ready for a President Obama with the conditions that have led France’s North African immigrants to riot on the outskirts of Paris. And have the Scandinavian countries ever generated anything comparable to Obama among the minorities who are tended to so generously as long as they don’t make too much noise?

The European right appears more enthusiastic about the liberal Obama than the left. French political scientist Dominique Moisi seems to think the Democrat will give pro-American Europeans some arguments to “sell” the United States among anti-Americans. “Why is Obama so different,” he asks in a recent syndicated essay, “from the other presidential candidates? After all, in foreign policy matters, the next president’s room to maneuver will be very small. He (or she) will have to stay in Iraq, engage in the Israel-Palestine conflict on the side of Israel, confront a tougher Russia, deal with an ever more ambitious China, and face the challenge of global warming. If Obama can make a difference, it is not because of his policy choices, but because of what he is. The very moment he appears on the world’s television screens, victorious and smiling, America’s image and soft power would experience something like a Copernican revolution.”

French philosopher Guy Sorman states in a recent op-ed article syndicated in Europe that “the heart of the United States is still conservative” and will “remain within the constraints set by Reagan in the 1980s: moral values, markets, military activism and small government.” He points out that Obama will pull the troops out of Iraq but reinforce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Other right-wing commentators point to the fact that, unlike Hillary Clinton, Obama’s health-care plan would not impose mandatory insurance—a sign that his type of social engineering is “light.”

In Latin America, conservatives are also looking positively at Obama for different reasons. They use him as an example of the reasonable way to bring about social change—peacefully and through the established institutions—even if they disagree with his liberal penchant. For instance, in Argentina’s La Nacion, Mario Diament notes that Obama’s background means the candidate “does not carry the history of racial discrimination” that other black leaders carry, and applauds the fact that “he is not one of the irate leaders of the civil rights era.” The implicit message directed at Latin America’s left is that the United States is a self-correcting society that, unlike radical Bolivians or Venezuelans, does not believe in replacing the legacy of discrimination against minorities with populist revolutions.

The Latin American left, sensing that the story of racial mobility implicit in Obama’s personal story is too good an ad for American society, has chosen to moderate its embrace of the black American senator. One pundit noted in Venezuela that the only meaningful gesture toward Latin America coming out of an Obama foreign policy agenda would be “the lifting of the travel restrictions against Cuba” and “perhaps one day talking to Hugo Chavez.”

Few observers overseas, left or right, seem to expect Obama to signify a traumatic shift for the United States. Regarding domestic policy, no Europeans or Latin Americans expect anything like 1932 (the New Deal) or 1964 (the Great Society); concerning foreign policy, nobody expects anything like 1968 (Nixon and Kissinger’s realpolitik). That makes Obama’s gradual rise to prominence mostly a psychological and symbolic phenomenon rather than a harbinger of major change. Consequently, the way he is viewed overseas has much more to do with the way each faction relates to the other across the ideological divide at home than what Obama would actually do or not do.