Is the World Really Losing Faith in Obama?

The president's critics fret about America's image abroad, but the numbers tell a different story.
Tennis fans at the Australian Open in Melbourne, in January 2009 (Mick Tsikas/Reuters)

Dick Cheney is worried about America’s image in the world. “I think the perception around the world is increasingly negative,” the former vice president declared on Wednesday to Sean Hannity, one of the few talk-show hosts who could hear such a claim without being struck dumb by its irony. It’s become a frequent Republican refrain. President Obama’s foreign policy, opines Karl Rove in a new Wall Street Journal column, has produced “strained relations with allies and declining confidence in American leadership.” Marco Rubio recently added that, “In Asia, our allies are increasingly unsure about our ability to counter both North Korea and Chinese expansionism.”

In a way, it’s heartening that Cheney and Rove feel the need to make non-Americans the ventriloquist dummies for their anti-Obama hostility. It suggests awareness that when it comes to foreign policy, they need spokespeople more credible than themselves. And it suggests a recognition, not always obvious during the George W. Bush years, that Americans should actually care what the rest of the world thinks.

But when Cheney says world opinion is “increasingly negative” and Rove detects “declining confidence” in the United States, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question: compared to when? In fact, while faith in the United States, and in Obama personally, has declined modestly since 2009, it is still dramatically higher than when Cheney and Rove roamed the West Wing.

For more than a decade, the Pew Research Center has been asking people around the world about their opinion of the United States. The upshot: In every region of the globe except the Middle East (where the United States was wildly unpopular under George W. Bush and remains so), America’s favorability is way up since Obama took office. In Spain, approval of the United States is 29 percentage points higher than when Bush left office. In Italy, it’s up 23 points. In Germany and France, it’s 22. With the exception of China, where the numbers have remained flat, the trend is the same in Asia. The U.S. is 19 points more popular in Japan, 24 points more popular in Indonesia, and 28 points more popular in Malaysia. Likewise among the biggest powers in Latin America and Africa: Approval of the United States has risen 19 points in Argentina and 12 points in South Africa. (For some reason, there’s no Bush-era data on this question for Brazil or Nigeria).

International Image of the United States (2013)

Pew Research Center

In his Hannity interview, Cheney attributed America’s supposedly deteriorating reputation to Obama personally. “If we have a problem with weakness,” he explained, “it's stemming from the White House.” But, in fact, the guy in the White House retains a personal brand that outshines America’s as a whole. And when you compare global perceptions of Obama to global perceptions of Cheney’s old boss, the gap is jaw-dropping.

Again, the numbers come from Pew, which has been asking people in key countries every year whether they have “confidence” in America’s president to “do the right thing in world affairs.” Obama’s popularity is down since 2009. Still, in Mexico and Argentina, the president’s 2013 numbers (the most recent we have) are 33 percentage points higher than Bush’s in 2008. In South Korea, the margin is 47 points. In Japan, it’s 45 points. In Brazil, it’s 52 points. In Britain, it’s 56 points. In France, it’s 70 points. In Germany, it’s 74 points.

Pew Research Center

In case you’re reading quickly, 74 points isn’t Obama’s approval rating in Germany. It’s the gap between his approval rating and Bush’s. In George W.’s final year in office, 14 percent of Germans had faith that the president of the United States would do the right thing internationally. Last year, 88 percent did.

Presented by

Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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