Dark Lining to a Silver Cloud: The Limits of a Popular American President
WASHINGTON -- The popularity of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate in 2008 rivaled rock stars in Western Europe. His election as president of the United States suggested that he would open a new chapter in the U.S.-European relationship. This is certainly true, to a degree. The desirability of American leadership greatly improved in Europe, together with European approval of the American president, after years of strain under the previous administration. But Europeans’ initial euphoria about the Obama presidency, reflected in early polling data and his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, was a product of his inspirational rhetoric and spoke more for the hope they put in him rather than for any real achievements.
Now, 18 months into the Obama presidency, the European public has issued its first meaningful report card on Obama’s accomplishments. It describes the limits of a still very popular American president. The new 2010 Transatlantic Trends survey of 11 European Union countries and the United States by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Compagnia di San Paolo, and several European foundation partners, shows that Obama’s overall approval remains high in the EU countries surveyed (78%), despite a slight decline from last year’s 83%. The endurance of his high approval in Europe is good for America’s image. But does this confirm a new era of transatlantic cooperation on today’s most pressing foreign policy concerns such as Iran and Afghanistan? Did this Obama-mania in Europe lead to converging opinions about how to address the specifics of a host of global challenges? Unfortunately, a popular American president might be a necessary first step toward transatlantic convergence, but is clearly not sufficient. Despite the fact that almost four-in-five EU respondents approve of the American president’s overall foreign policy, his handling of specific foreign policy issues is much less popular. Europeans are especially unlikely to approve of the way the president has been handling Afghanistan (49%) and Iran (49%). This gap between overall approval and the issues presents a puzzle and indicates the limits of a popular American president; he is unable to change entrenched transatlantic differences in public opinion about the most prominent security concerns of today. And while general support is important, America needs the kind of support that is translated into actual deeds, such as troops deployed in dangerous areas. Since the time of the survey, one of the 11 European countries, the Netherlands, formally declared its withdrawal from its four-year mission in Afghanistan. This continuing transatlantic divide is reflected in the widespread lack of optimism about joint engagements. The United States is the only country in which a slight majority of respondents (51%) feel optimistic about stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. At the same time, only about one-quarter of EU respondents (23%) are optimistic, down nine points from last year. The path forward also divides Americans and Europeans. A majority of EU respondents (64%) say their country should either reduce or withdraw troops in Afghanistan while the United States is the only country in which a majority (58%) supports maintaining or increasing troop levels. Working with an immensely popular American president is unlikely to provide sufficient political cover for European leaders to continue their commitment in Afghanistan against such clear public preferences in their own countries. Germany is the quintessential example of how a high level of U.S. presidential approval by the German public masks a very genuine division about real issues. Despite an 87% approval rate for Obama’s general handling of international policies, only 40% approve of his handling of Afghanistan, and 67% would like to see German troops reduced or withdrawn altogether. German optimism about stabilizing Afghanistan was halved from last year to 10%--the lowest in the survey. Are these transatlantic divides here to stay?
It appears so. The division goes beyond policy and is found in deeply rooted values and attitudes toward the use of military force. When asked whether war is necessary to obtain justice under some circumstances, three-quarters of Americans (77%) and only one-quarter of EU respondents (27%) agree. These numbers have remained fairly constant over the past several years—unaffected by the person in the White House. Since values don’t change quickly, can these structural divisions be overcome? Obama’s popularity certainly has created the space for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to work together more openly. But European leaders will find it increasingly difficult to work with the Obama administration on key security issues such as Afghanistan as European public opinion continues to reflect disapproval and growing skepticism of the administration’s policies. Image and popularity are important, but they have their limits.
Zsolt Nyiri is the director of Transatlantic Trends, and Ben Veater-Fuchs is a program assistant for Transatlantic Trends at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
* Transatlantic Trends is a comprehensive annual survey of American and European public opinion. This year, the interviews were conducted between June 1 and June 29, 2010, in the United States and 12 European countries: Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The survey is a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Compagnia di San Paolo, with additional support from the Fundação Luso-Americana, Fundación BBVA, and the Tipping Point Foundation.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.