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President Obama may be slumping at home, but he's surging in Europe

The US president's approval rating in Europe is 86 percent, even as he faces assaults from the right at home. But can he use that to advance his policy goals?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 2009



Paris

Europeans really like President Barack Obama. Everyone knew that. What they didn't know was exactly how much – until now.

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A German Marshall Fund (GMF) survey reports a record 86 percent of Europeans agree with Mr. Obama's policies – a dizzying jump from 19 percent for President George Bush. In Germany, where mega-crowds gathered to hear him speak during the 2008 election campaign, Obama is at 92 percent, an 80-point pole vault over Mr. Bush's last rating.

The American leader does not enjoy such approval in his own country, in \a summer of health care debates and GOP-led town halls. Rasmussen's daily presidential tracking poll this Wednesday found 48 percent of Americans approve of Obama's performance.

The annual transatlantic survey took place in June; fund officials were unsure what they would find. The results were "eye-popping," in the words of Ronald Asmus, director of the GMF in Brussels.

"We heard about an Obama bounce," says Zsolt Nyiri, who worked on the numbers at the Fund's Washington office. "But the size surprised us. You hardly ever see change like this in public opinion data, coming overnight."

But does it matter if the majority of people among America's top allies have a favorable opinion of the US leader?

No and yes, say analysts.

No, on the really hard issues. Europeans may identify with Obama's basic liberal values, love his family story, and find him cool and collected, a temperament liked here. But Obama's charm is not enough to change European official thinking on American bids for more European troops in Afghanistan, on economic policy, or on details of how to approach Iran.

"The attitude about Obama, and policy, are disconnected in Europe," says Arun Kapil of Catholic University in Paris. "There's no reason the enthusiasm for him here would change" since he hasn't done anything to upset Europeans, he said.

Yet bonhomie does matter, says Nicole Bacharan, political analyst at Sciences Po in Paris. "There are a lot of doubts in Europe about the future of the US as a leader. Will it pull out of the economic crisis as a leader? Security issues are cloudy. For common ventures, you need less distance than we had. Obama is a reaffirmation of the US for us, and that's why the numbers are high."

In Eastern Europe, Obama's approval did not climb as steeply, running at about 60 percent. In Turkey, where Obama visited this spring and supported Turkish accession to the European Union, his numbers were at 40 percent, compared with 8 percent for Bush. But Turks remained skeptical of both American and European leadership in the survey.

Mr. Kapil says that in the past two US elections, ordinary Europeans took sides and made distinctions for the first time between Republicans and Democrats. "Europeans for a long time thought the two parties were basically the same. They supported George Bush Sr. over Michael Dukakis in 1988. They knew [former Secretary of State] George Schultz and Republican internationalists. But after 9/11, they see Republicans as the party of American nationalism. It's something new."

French and European intellectuals watching the US healthcare debate, says Karim Emile Bitar of the International Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris, mostly worry that "Obama will be a one-term president."

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