Obama About as Popular Abroad as He Is at Home

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Less than half the world – 46% — would want to see President Barack Obama reelected, according to a new poll out Thursday of 150 nations done by the U.S. Global Leadership Project, a collaboration between the Meridian International Center and Gallup. That’s exactly the percentage of Americans who approve of the job Obama’s doing in Gallup’s March survey.

This is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Polling in other countries is nowhere as meticulous as it has become in the U.S. And there are many countries where dislike of the American president is a reflex; it doesn’t matter who that person may be, especially in bad economic times. Comparatively, Obama is twice as popular abroad as President George W. Bush, who rated only 22% in a similar poll conducted in the third year of Bush’s presidency. Still, there was a downward trend at home and abroad: Obama was most popular just after winning the presidency and those numbers have almost universally slid since. Obama’s popularity dropped by double digits in 29 countries between 2010 and 2011, but overall it dropped just two percentage points from a high of 49% in 2009.

“The dip in international approval ratings for the U.S. leadership in 2011 is likely the result of several factors,” says Meridian president and CEO, Ambassador Stuart Holliday. “U.S. leadership has been preoccupied with domestic debates due to political wrangling and an economic crisis at home. This has meant that it has been less able and willing to engage on some critical areas, including the Eurozone crisis and the Arab Spring movements. But it is also a natural normalizing of international approval ratings for U.S. leadership after an initial sizable bump – 17% — when President Obama took office. The world has settled into a more realistic expectation of what U.S. leadership can accomplish and the numbers reflect that. Last but not least, part of this change is driven by the tumultuous events of the past year around the world. People are expressing greater dissatisfaction with their leadership in general and looking for alternatives to government-led solutions. Relative to perceptions of other countries, the U.S. still ranks higher on perceptions of its leadership compared with other powers like Russia and China.”

Indeed, Obama was least popular in the Arab world. He had an approval rating of 35% in Morocco, 27% in Tunisia and 19% in Egypt, the lowest three on the African continent (Ghana was the highest with a 92% approval rating). His popularity waned by 13 points in France to 42% and by 10 points in Germany to 40%, reflecting the general feeling in both countries that the U.S. didn’t do enough to help with the Eurozone crisis. Though in Belgium, home to the European Union, Obama saw a rare bump of 15 point in his approval rating. Likewise the Brits love Obama more than ever; his popularity rose in the U.K. by 13 point to 67%. (Obama saw double-digit gains in only three countries: Belgium, the U.K. and Cambodia.)

In Afghanistan, in the wake of scandals where U.S. soldiers inadvertently burned Korans and one soldier allegedly killed 17 Afghan civilians, Obama’s approval rating plummeted 12 points to 31%. Not all news out of that region was bad: Obama gained 8 points in Pakistan, though his approval rate remains a dismal 26%. In Asia, Obama was least popular in Iran, which is suffering under crippling economic sanctions levied by the U.S. because of Iran’s nuclear program; 9% of Iranians approved of the job he is doing and 65% disapproved. Even Bush was more popular with Iranians, 22% of whom in 2007 and 16% in 2008 approved of him.

“The bottom line is that the U.S. still enjoys strong approval for its leadership,” Holiday says. “This data indicates that it can retain and even grow that standing if it: one, gets its house in order by ensuring an economic recovery while at the same time not allowing its domestic debates to absorb all its time. And, two, focuses on three core areas: promoting entrepreneurism, innovation, and public/private partnerships. Fortunately, these are already areas of strengths for the U.S.”