GUY RAZ, Host:

The Greek prime minister's popularity has plummeted since he led his Socialist Party to victory two years ago. George Papandreou belongs to the country's most important political dynasty.

But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Athens, he's now trying to dismantle the generous welfare state his father created.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Anti-government protests have been escalating in decibels and numbers. Many demonstrators once loyal to the ruling Socialists carry posters of Papandreou as an American stooge or an alien from Mars. Greeks are furious as the government slashes public sector wages and pensions and raises taxes.

But the prime minister is unfazed.

GEORGE PAPANDREOU: Many ask me: But do you have the support? My first answer is that is not my problem. I have said I am here to work for my country, save the country, change the country, whether I am re-elected or not is not my problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

POGGIOLI: Papandreou was in Berlin, basking in the applause of German businessmen.

This is what angers many Greece: The cosmopolitan prime minister seems more comfortable abroad than at home. Scion of a powerful political dynasty, the 59-year-old Papandreou grew up in Minnesota. His father had been forced into exile when the military junta took power in 1967.

Perhaps because of his years abroad and an American mother, his Greek is still today inflected with a Midwest accent and his bearing is more reserved than is typical in this society.

Journalist and publisher George Kirtsos knew Papandreou when they were both college students in the U.S. This is how Kirtsos describes the father.

GEORGE KIRTSOS: Andreas Papandreou was a firebrand socialist - big spender, charismatic politician. Let's say a very capable orator.

POGGIOLI: The son, Kirtsos says, couldn't be more different.

KIRTSOS: Okay, he's a nice guy - a liberal, in the American sense of the word. Open-minded, but this doesn't make him effective in, let's say, the Byzantine environment of Greek politics.

POGGIOLI: After the junta's fall, the elder Papandreou, Andreas, founded PASOK, the Socialist Party, and, following in his own father's footsteps, was elected prime minister in 1981. Society was polarized by years of civil conflict but thanks to Greece's entry into the European Union, it was suddenly flush with cash. That's how Andreas Papandreou forged a generous welfare state. Education, health care and social mobility for everyone helped heal wounds of the past.

Sociologist Despina Papadopoulou says big-spending PASOK produced a massive middle-class that kept the party in power for almost 20 of the last 30 years. Now, with draconian austerity measures, she says, George Papandreou is undoing his father's legacy.

DESPINA PAPADOPOULOU: (Through Translator) And now the paradox is that the same ruling party that is destroying the middle class, is destroying the social forces that helped it access to power and this is our real crisis.

POGGIOLI: Last year, when he announced he was seeking a $150 billion bailout, Papandreou was inspired by antiquity. Greece is facing a new Odyssey, he said, but we know how to get back to Ithaca.

Konstantinos Koutsodimos, vice president of a powerful union, wonders whether George, the son, has an Oedipus complex.

KONSTANTINOS KOUTSODIMOS: (Through Translator) This is a political patricide. For us, Papandreou's behavior and policy are a complete betrayal. Before being elected, he promised that he would increase the social welfare state. He said he would increase wages. And in just two months after his election he reversed everything. He forgot all his promises.

POGGIOLI: Many economists here agree that the welfare system has been over-inflated and tainted with corruption, and that the massive public sector must be drastically streamlined. But analysts question whether Papandreou - who has alienated so many Greeks - will be able to deliver. His drive to save the country without social consensus seems a Sisyphean task.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens.

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