Rock star no more: why global opinion of Obama has deflated

A poll of global opinion finds that Obama's popularity has fallen – apparently because of disapproval of his drone-strike campaign. The drop in Arab countries is worse than in Europe. 

Larry Downing/REUTERS/File
President Barack Obama shakes hands with a crowd of local residents in his ancestral home in Moneygall, Ireland last year in this file photo.
Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Some 200,000 people thronged a Berlin rally in 2008 to hear Barack Obama speak.

Unilateral military action by the United States drags down global opinion of the American president.

Sound like the scenario that confronted former President George W. Bush? Actually, it’s the picture painted by a new poll showing a significant drop in the international approval ratings of erstwhile global rock star Barack Obama.

The single most important explanation for the tarnishing of the Obama star status? Apparently it’s the drone strikes he’s ordered (at a faster clip than Mr. Bush ever did) to take out Al Qaeda and other extremist-organization leaders in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The new poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, finds that majorities in 17 of the 20 countries surveyed disapprove of Mr. Obama’s drone-strike campaign. (On the other hand, Americans stand out in their support for the assassinations by unmanned aircraft: Roughly two-thirds of Obama’s constituents approve.)

In a broader sense, global approval of Obama has fallen because Obama is perceived as being much less multilateral – and focusing less on key international issues like climate change and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – than people expected.

So when Obama campaign officials cite improvements under Obama in US relations with allies and partners and in America’s image abroad, they are still right – but to an apparently decreasing degree. 

The Pew poll finds that 63 percent of Europeans surveyed approve of Obama’s policies – down from a whopping 78 percent in 2009. Granted, the president would dearly love to have such numbers at home, where his approval rating hovers in the high 40s.

In Muslim countries, Obama’s approval rating has slid from about one-third of respondents in 2009 to just 15 percent today. And then there’s Pakistan: Only 7 of every 100 Pakistanis have a positive view of Obama.

The Pew poll also finds that the Obama years have coincided with a significant shift in perceptions of the US in a different area, the world economy. Today, often by significant majorities, respondents in survey countries say the US has lost its status as the world’s leading economic power to China.

Four years ago, a plurality of 45 percent in the 14 countries also surveyed in this year’s poll named the US as the king of the global economic hill, as opposed to 22 percent who picked China. Today 42 percent place China in the throne, while the percentage naming the US has slipped to 36.

In European countries especially, China is viewed as the leading economic power: About two-thirds of Germans hold this opinion, while nearly 60 percent of Britons, French, and Spaniards do as well.

The Pew poll, like its own earlier samplings and other surveys of global opinion, does find a continuing positive view around the world of what Pew’s president, Andrew Kohut, calls the “soft power” aspects of America’s global image. The “American way of doing business” is particularly well-viewed in the Arab world and among young Arabs, while American science and technology, as well as popular culture media like music, movies, and television, get high marks in most countries.

And then there’s the matter of Obama’s reelection. In Europe, disappointed publics still consider – and by large majorities – that the man they once revered as portending a new America still deserves another term in the White House. People in Japan and Brazil agree.

In Arab countries, however, where publics failed to jump on the Obama bandwagon even after his 2009 Cairo speech, the consensus is thumbs down. In Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, majorities say no to four more years.

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