July 23, 2009

Confidence in Obama Lifts U.S. Image Around the World

Chapter 2. Views of President Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama is popular in nations across much of the world. This is especially true in Western Europe, although he also receives extremely high ratings in countries such as Canada, Japan, South Korea, India, Brazil, Kenya and Nigeria.

In most predominantly Muslim nations surveyed, there is less enthusiasm for the new president, with one clear exception. President Obama is very popular in Indonesia, the nation with the largest Muslim population, where Obama spent part of his childhood.

Even in Muslim nations where his ratings tend to be negative however, Obama is generally more popular than his predecessor. For instance, only one-in-three Turks have confidence in Obama’s foreign affairs leadership, but this is still a solid improvement from last year, when only 2% voiced confidence in President George W. Bush.

Looking at the 21 countries surveyed in both 2008 and 2009, Obama consistently receives far more positive reviews than Bush did. Across these countries, a median of 71% say they have a lot or some confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs. Last year a median of only 17% expressed confidence in Bush. The gap between perceptions of Obama and his predecessor is enormous in many countries. This is particularly true in Western Europe, but large gaps can be found in other regions as well.

In most countries, large numbers say Obama’s election led them to have more favorable views of the United States, and there are high expectations for his presidency, specifically on the topics of climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and multilateralism.

There also is widespread support for Obama’s policies: When asked to give an overall evaluation of the new administration’s international policies, solid majorities in most nations approve. In addition, Obama’s decisions to close the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and to withdraw combat forces from Iraq by 2011 are widely embraced. Obama’s economic stimulus package receives support in Western Europe, Japan and Canada. However, there is much less support for Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

While there is considerable support for several of Obama’s policies, a multivariate analysis of the survey data from Western Europe and in predominantly Muslim nations in the Middle East suggests that attitudes toward the U.S. are more closely tied to overall confidence in Obama’s leadership in world affairs than to opinions about the president’s specific policies regarding Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In both regions, the degree of confidence people have in Obama is a stronger predictor of whether they have a favorable view of the U.S.

Sky High Ratings in Europe, Much Less Confidence in Middle East

President Obama receives very high ratings in Western Europe and Canada. In Germany (93%) and France (91%) more than nine-in-ten say they have a lot or some confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs. Canadians (88%) and the British (86%) are similarly enthusiastic. More than seven-in-ten (72%) Spanish respondents share this view, about the same level of support that Obama receives in the United States (74%).

In Western Europe, Obama receives far higher ratings than Bush did in 2008, during his final year in office. The percentage of Germans who have confidence in Obama is 79 points higher than the percentage who felt this way about Bush last year. Corresponding shifts have taken place in France (+78 points), Britain (+70), Spain (+64) and Canada (+60).

In Poland, a European Union country in which attitudes toward the U.S. remained relatively positive in the Bush era, 62% have confidence in Obama, up from the 41% who expressed confidence in Bush.

Confidence in Obama also runs extremely high in the two African countries included in the survey. In the country where his father was born, Obama is almost universally popular – 94% of Kenyans have a positive view of his leadership. Even before Obama’s election, Kenyans generally held positive views of the U.S., and President Bush also received quite positive reactions from Kenyans in 2007 (72% confident). About nine-in-ten (88%) Nigerians also voice confidence in Obama, compared with 55% for Bush a year ago.

Latin Americans have much more positive attitudes toward Obama than they did toward Bush. Roughly three-in-four Brazilians (76%) have confidence that Obama will do the right thing in world affairs, while only 17% felt this way about Bush. In Argentina, confidence in Bush was in the single digits (7%), but now 61% have confidence in Obama. The shift has been only slightly less dramatic in Mexico, where 16% had confidence in Bush last year, while 55% now say this about Obama.

Obama earns favorable reviews in Asia as well. Obama is far more popular in Japan (85%) than was his predecessor (25%). Similarly, large majorities express confidence in Obama in South Korea (81%), India (77%), and China (62%), and in each country this new president gets much better marks than Bush did.

About seven-in-ten (71%) Indonesians have confidence in Obama, up from 23% for Bush in 2008. In other majority Muslim countries, however, views are far less positive. In Egypt (42%) and Jordan (31%) far fewer say they trust Obama’s leadership in foreign affairs, although in both countries there is more support for Obama than there was for Bush. Similarly, confidence in Obama is 31 percentage points higher than Bush’s 2008 rating in Turkey, where Obama paid a highly publicized visit in April.

Overall, Lebanese are divided over Obama, with 46% expressing confidence in his leadership and 50% saying they do not have confidence in him. However, this masks considerable differences among Lebanon’s three major religious groups. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Sunni Muslims have a positive view, compared with only 26% of Shia Muslims. And Christians are split, with 46% saying they have a lot or some confidence in the new American president and 45% saying they have not too much or no confidence at all.

Obama receives his lowest ratings in Pakistan and the Palestinian territories. Just 13% of Pakistanis have confidence in him, while 51% see him negatively, and a large share (36%) offers no opinion. Three-in-four Palestinians have a negative opinion of Obama, while only 23% see him positively.

Israel is the only country in which there is parity between ratings for Obama and previous ratings for Bush. Just over half (56%) of Israelis are confident Obama will do the right thing in international affairs, virtually unchanged from the 57% who said the same about Bush in 2007. Obama is popular among Israel’s Muslim community – roughly two-thirds (68%) voice confidence in Obama, a considerably higher rating than Bush received among Israeli Muslims in 2003 (31%).

There is only one non-Muslim nation in which opinions of Obama are on balance negative: Slightly more Russians say they lack confidence (40%) in the new president than say they have confidence (37%) in him.

Kenyans and Indonesians Aware of Obama Ties

Obama’s family connections to Kenya and Indonesia are well-known in those countries. Nearly everyone surveyed in Kenya (96%) is aware that Obama’s father was Kenyan. And roughly eight-in-ten (79%) Indonesians are aware that the new president lived there as a child.

Obama also has a personal connection to Pakistan, where his mother once worked, but few Pakistanis (8%) are aware of this fact.

Most Say Election Improved Their Opinion of U.S.

In most countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities say the election of Barack Obama led them to have a more favorable view of the United States. Again Western Europe, and especially France (93% more favorable) and Germany (91%), stand out in this regard.

Pakistanis, however, are the least likely to say Obama’s election improved their opinion of the U.S. (9%); more than twice as many (23%) say his election made them feel less favorably toward the United States. Many Pakistanis (42%) have no opinion on this question.

In Israel opinion is more evenly divided, with 40% saying more favorable and 40% saying less favorable. Next door in the Palestinian territories, opinions also are divided, with 37% saying the election led them to have a more favorable view and 30% a less favorable opinion. In neighboring Jordan, more than four-in-ten (44%) volunteer that the election had no impact on their attitude toward the U.S.

In general, reactions to Obama’s victory are quite different from reactions to the re-election of George W. Bush four years earlier. Among the 15 countries asked about Bush’s re-election in 2005, there was no country in which a majority or plurality said his re-election led them to have a more favorable view of the U.S. In nations such as Germany, France, and Canada, roughly three-in-four said it caused them to have a less favorable opinion.

Examining the 13 nations that were surveyed in both 2005 and 2009 illustrates the vastly different reactions to the two most recent U.S. presidential elections. Whereas 77% of Germans said Bush’s re-election made them less favorably disposed toward the U.S., only 1% feel this way about Obama’s win. Similar gaps can be found in other Western European nations. However, these large differences are not only present in Western Europe; Russians, Indians, and publics in several majority-Muslim countries also reacted more favorably to Obama’s election.

High Expectations for Obama

Many around the world have high expectations for the way President Obama will approach international policymaking. Substantial numbers in most countries believe he will act in a multilateral fashion, weighing the interests of other nations in his decisions and seeking international approval before using military force.

In 16 of 24 countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities think Obama will consider the interests of countries like theirs when making foreign policy decisions. And in the United States, a large majority (85%) believes Obama will take into account the interests of other countries. Similarly, majorities or pluralities in 17 of 25 nations (including the U.S.) believe Obama will seek international approval before using military force.

The belief that Obama will follow these approaches to foreign policy is especially widespread in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe, although the Spanish are divided over whether he will think about the interests of countries like Spain – 47% say he will, 47% say he will not.

Arab publics are more skeptical on both of these questions. For instance, roughly two-thirds of Lebanese (68%), Palestinians (66%), and Jordanians (66%) do not think the president will consider their interests. In neighboring Israel, most (56%) feel he will think about their interests, although a significant minority (39%) say he will not.

On both questions, Turks and Pakistanis exhibit the most skepticism about Obama’s multilateralism. Less than one-quarter in Turkey and Pakistan think Obama will consider their interests when making policy or seek approval from other nations before using military force.

Interestingly, Russia and China – two countries with veto power on the United Nations Security Council – are among the least likely to believe Obama will try to get international approval before deploying force. In both former Cold War rivals of the U.S., only 29% hold this view.

Meanwhile, 85% of Americans say Obama will consider other countries’ interests in his decision-making and roughly seven-in-ten (72%) think he will look for international approval before using U.S. military force.

Respondents also were asked about Obama’s policies toward the Middle East. In 18 of 25 nations surveyed, public opinion leans toward the view that Obama will be fair in dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians. By 53% to 40%, more Israelis say Obama will be fair in addressing this situation. By contrast, just 27% of Palestinians say he will be fair, while 70% say he will not.

More generally, relatively few Arabs surveyed believe Obama’s Middle East policy will be fair. Large majorities of Jordanians (69%), Egyptians (66%) and Lebanese (63%) think he will not be fair.

On the question of climate change, expectations are high for Obama’s approach. Again, EU nations, Canada and the U.S. are especially likely to believe the president will address this subject, with majorities saying Obama will “get the U.S. to take significant measures to control global climate change.”

Some publics that are skeptical of Obama’s approach to other issues, such as the Lebanese and Palestinians, believe that Obama will address climate change. It is worth noting that in many countries, including Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, Argentina and Mexico, large numbers are unable to offer an opinion on this question.

Views of Obama’s Policies

Overall evaluations of President Obama’s international policies are generally positive. In 20 of 25 nations, those who approve of his international policies outnumber those who disapprove.

Support is especially high in France (93%), Germany (92%), Kenya (88%), Nigeria (85%), and Brazil (80%). More than two-thirds (68%) of Americans also endorse Obama’s foreign policies.

Support is considerably lower in many predominantly Muslim nations. Half or more in Jordan (60%), the Palestinian territories (54%) and Egypt (50%) say they disapprove of Obama’s policies.

Nearly half of Pakistanis do not offer an opinion (46%); most of those who do offer an opinion – 42% overall – say they disapprove of Obama’s international policies. Turks are almost evenly divided in their views (34% approve, 37% disapprove), although 29% do not give an opinion.

In addition to overall evaluations of Obama’s international policies, respondents were asked about several of the new president’s specific policies, including his initiatives on Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama’s decision to close the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is universally popular. More approve than disapprove of this policy in all nations, with one exception: the United States. Americans are closely divided on this issue – 45% approve, 47% disapprove. There are sharp partisan differences on this question, as 65% of Democrats approve, compared with 45% of independents and just 18% of Republicans.

Among the Arab publics surveyed, this proposal is very popular, especially among Palestinians (93% approve) and Lebanese (91%). More than eight-in-ten also back this idea in Germany (84%), France and Spain (82% each).

Obama’s pledge to withdraw combat forces from Iraq by December 2011 also is overwhelmingly popular across the nations surveyed. In all 25 nations, more approve of this plan than disapprove, including 70% of Americans, and at least eight-in-ten in the four Western European countries and Canada.

Withdrawing from Iraq also is popular among Iraq’s neighbors. Roughly nine-in-ten Palestinians (92%), 85% of Lebanese, and 72% of Jordanians back this proposal. It is slightly less popular in Egypt (59%) and Turkey (55%), although approval outweighs disapproval by solid margins in both countries. A slim majority of Israelis (53%) want U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011; but at 35%, Israel is the nation with the largest share of people saying they disapprove of this plan.

India is the only country in which less than a majority says they approve of withdrawing troops from Iraq, although the percentage who approves (43%) is nearly double the percentage who disapproves (22%).

The publics surveyed express much more negative opinions about Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. While Obama’s decision is endorsed by 54% of Americans, majorities or pluralities in only four other nations approve of this policy: Israel (54%), Kenya (53%), Nigeria (49%) and India (38%).

Despite the president’s calls for NATO allies to send more troops to Afghanistan, there is opposition to such action in Germany (63% disapprove), France (62%), Poland (57%), Canada (55%), Britain (51%), Spain (50%), and Turkey (49%).

Opposition also is widespread in majority Muslim nations, with 84% of Palestinians and roughly two-thirds of Lebanese (67%), Jordanians (66%), and Egyptians (64%) saying they disapprove. Even in Indonesia, where support for Obama runs high, 66% oppose this policy.

Opinions About Obama’s Stimulus Plan

In Western Europe, Japan, Canada and the United States, respondents were asked about Obama’s policy of stimulating the U.S. economy through government spending. While Americans are only slightly more likely to approve (51%) of this idea than to disapprove (45%), there is more support elsewhere.

In France, 84% approve of Obama’s stimulus spending. Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s criticism of U.S. stimulus spending, nearly three-quarters of Germans (74%) approve of Obama’s stimulus policy. Majorities also agree with the stimulus spending in Japan (72%), Britain (71%), Canada (70%) and Spain (61%).

Could a Minority Candidate Win in Western Europe?

Overwhelmingly, Western Europeans have reacted favorably to the election of an African American president in the U.S., but many are doubtful that a minority candidate could win in their countries.

By slim margins, those surveyed in Germany (54% possible, 45% not possible), France (53% possible, 47% not possible) and Britain (51% possible, 46% not possible) say it is possible that a minority candidate could be elected as leader of their country in the near future. Opinions on this issue are quite different, however, in Spain, where only 27% believe a minority candidate could be elected as prime minister of their country.

Younger people are especially likely to believe a minority candidate could win in both Britain and Germany. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) British 18-29 year-olds say it is possible, compared with 51% of 30-49 year-olds and 47% of those age 50 and older.

Similarly, about two-thirds (68%) of 18-29 year-old Germans think a candidate of non-German origin could be elected, compared with 63% of those age 30-49 and just 42% of people age 50 and over.