Barack Obama greets a Berlin audience during a visit in 2008, before he was elected US president. Photograph: Rainer Jensen/EPA
In his book Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama described himself as a Rorschach test – the famous psychological experiment where people are shown a series of ink blots and asked to identify what they see in them. There is no right answer. But each response in its own way, is thought to reveal the patient's obsessions and anxieties.
So it is with Obama. In the last week he has been disparaged as the "most successful food stamp president in history" by Newt Gingrich and a spineless "black mascot" of Wall Street by the prominent black academic Cornel West.
"I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," he said. "As such I am bound to disappoint some if not all of them."
But one of the most curious things about those who support him most is not their disappointments – given their high hopes for him, that's to be expected – but their enduring devotion in the face of those disappointments. It's as though each single disillusionment is consumed as its own discrete letdown. String them together and you have not a narrative of failing to deliver on promises, but a litany of isolated, separate chapters – each with its own caveats, exceptions and explanations.
This has long been true of black voters in the US, who somehow manage to feel more optimistic about America than ever, even as they are doing worse in it. Unemployment, poverty and foreclosure rates have risen to rates far higher than under George Bush, and the gap in opportunities between blacks and whites increases. Nonetheless, black Americans remain Obama's most loyal base. They are suffering from 16% unemployment, but they continue to give him 80% approval.
The same apparent contradictions underpin European attitudes to Obama, which have barely changed since his emergence as a credible presidential candidate. A Pew research poll published in July 2008, before the elections, revealed that Obama was more popular in Europe than any other continent, including North America.