July 16, 2008

Obamamania Abroad

The Candidate Can Expect a Warm Welcome in Europe, Not So in the Middle East

by Richard Wike, Associate Director, Pew Global Attitudes Project

By all accounts, Barack Obama will be greeted with enthusiasm as he travels in Europe. “Across the continent,” declares the Economist, “Bush hatred has been replaced by Obamamania.” Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens writes that anticipation of Obama’s visit is so intense, “Europe can scarcely contain itself.” Obama T-shirts have been spotted on the streets of Berlin and the internet is full of Facebook groups with names like Brits for Barack and France 4Ob.

Polls certainly show considerable excitement about the presumptive Democratic nominee: A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey found that, among Europeans paying attention to the presidential contest, large majorities voice confidence in Obama.1 Meanwhile, relatively few have a positive opinion of his Republican rival, John McCain.

But Obama’s coming trip will also take him into less friendly territory. When the Illinois senator lands in Jordan, he will find a public that, like others in the region, holds overwhelmingly negative views about the United States and remains skeptical about the future of American foreign policy, regardless of who is elected in November.

Europeans Pro-Obama

Obama’s travel itinerary will take him to three European countries where he is extremely popular: France, Germany and Britain. In France, 84% of those following the U.S. presidential race say they have confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs; only a third, however, are confident in McCain. The numbers are almost identical in Germany (82% confidence in Obama, 33% in McCain).

The gap between the two candidates is slightly less pronounced in Britain, although it is still a staggering 30 percentage points — 74% have confidence in Obama, 44% in McCain. Obama also receives higher marks than McCain in the other two European Union countries included on the survey, Spain and Poland.

Part of Obama’s appeal — and part of the challenge for McCain in Europe — stems from the fact that many Europeans are looking for a new direction in American foreign policy. Surveys by Pew and other organizations have shown that key tenets of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy are widely unpopular in Europe: Few think the Iraq war will end in success, support for the U.S.-led war on terror has declined dramatically, and the perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally on the world stage, failing to take into account European interests, is widespread.

Not surprisingly then, ratings for President Bush are overwhelmingly negative. More than eight-in-ten in Spain (88%), France (87%), Germany (85%) and Britain (81%) lack confidence in Bush to do the right thing in world affairs.

As a result, being a Democrat surely helps Obama’s image among Europeans, while the Republican label hurts McCain. However, there is evidence that Obama’s popularity is driven by more than just the fact that he belongs to the opposition party.

In all four Western European countries surveyed, Obama outperformed not only McCain, but fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton as well (when the poll was conducted, Sen. Clinton was still a viable candidate for the nomination). For instance, 84% of the French who are following the race have confidence in Obama, compared with 60% confident in Clinton. This suggests that Obama’s appeal among Europeans may be driven by more than just his party affiliation.

No Obamamania in the Middle East

The story is quite different, however, in the other region Obama is scheduled to visit: the Middle East (he is expected to stop in Jordan and Israel, as well as Iraq). Compared with Europe, Obama may find a lukewarm public reception there, especially in the region’s Muslim nations, where there is little enthusiasm for either presidential contender. (Obama may have challenges in Israel as well, where recent polls show he is less popular than McCain.2)

Jordan is one of only three countries in Pew’s 24-nation survey (the U.S. and Pakistan are the others) in which confidence levels in the two candidates are essentially the same — 23% of Jordanians express confidence in McCain’s foreign policy leadership, while 22% feel this way about Obama.

In neighboring countries, Obama receives more positive reviews than his Republican opponent, but ratings for both candidates are largely negative. Just 20% of Turks who are following the race voice confidence in Obama, although, at 5%, McCain’s rating is even more dismal. Egyptian views toward the candidates are somewhat more positive, although ratings for both remain low at 31% for Obama and 23% for McCain.

In Lebanon, about one-in-three voice confidence in Obama, while one-in-four say this about McCain. Obama, however, garners support from a narrow 54%-majority of Lebanese Christians among whom only 27% voice confidence in McCain.

As previous Pew studies have demonstrated, anti-American sentiments run especially deep among many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. Among the 24 countries in the 2008 Pew poll, U.S. favorability ratings are lowest in four predominantly Muslim nations — Turkey (12% have a favorable view of the U.S.), Pakistan (19%), Jordan (19%) and Egypt (22%).

In these nations, suspicions of American power are pervasive and extend beyond President Bush’s personal unpopularity. Unlike in many other regions, in the Middle East there is little optimism about the post-Bush era.

In 14 of the nations surveyed by Pew in 2008, majorities or pluralities of those following the presidential race say they expect American foreign policy to change for the better when a new president takes office next January. However, this view is much less common in the Arab nations of Jordan (only 19% expect foreign policy to improve), Egypt (25%) and Lebanon (30%), as well as in Pakistan (20%) and Turkey (29%). In these countries, deep-seated reservations about America and its role in the world will pose a challenge to the next president, whether it is Obama or McCain.

  1. The survey was conducted March-April 2008. For more results from the 24-nation poll, including international views of the American presidential race, see "Global Economic Gloom - China and India Notable Exceptions," Pew Global Attitudes Project, June 12, 2008.
  2. See for example Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post, Obama rises among Israeli Jews, Jun 27, 2008.