For Obama, Improving U.S. Image Abroad Is A Work In Progress

Among Barack Obama’s oft-stated goals during the 2008 campaign was repairing the image of the United States abroad. New data from Pew shows that Obama’s election and his early performance in office have achieved that goal in many parts of the world, but not in the area many consider most crucial: Muslim nations.

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Not surprisingly, the 25-country survey shows Western European countries with the most dramatic gains in U.S. favorability ratings. Prior to the Bush Presidency in 2000, the U.S. enjoyed broad support throughout Western Europe, with especially high favorability ratings in Britain (83%), Germany (78%) and France (62%). The Iraq war and other U.S. policies helped drive those numbers down year-by-year and by 2008 those favorability numbers had fallen to 53% in Britain, 31% in Germany and 42% in France. With so much of the dramatic drop in opinion of the U.S. tied to President Bush, it only took the election of Barack Obama and a few months in office to vault those numbers back near 2000 levels. The change was most dramatic in France, where favorability ratings for the U.S. have nearly doubled from their levels during the Bush years to 75%.

Somewhat more surprising is how little improvement Obama’s election has brought to opinion of the U.S. in Muslim nations. As the Pew report notes, there have been only modest gains in opinion toward the U.S. in Egypt and Jordan and no improvement at all in the Palestinian Territories or Pakistan. The data confirms how deep skepticism toward the U.S. runs in these Muslim countries. Unlike the trend in many other countries in the study, the mere election of a seemingly more sympathetic American President has not been enough to raise opinions of the U.S.

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The striking exception to the lack of improvement among Muslim nations was in Indonesia, where 63% react favorably to the United States. However, as in Western Europe, the U.S. had artificially low Bush-era ratings to bounce back from. And, as Pew notes, Obama’s years in the country as a child are surely well known to the Indonesian population and have helped propel the popularity of the U.S. since his election.

The flashiest question in the Pew poll is a popularity face-off between Osama bin Laden, George Bush and Barack Obama. On one measure the findings are predictably dismal — the Palestinian Territories give bin Laden a confidence level of 52%, far exceeding their feelings towards Obama (22%) or Bush (8% in 2008). But aside from Palestinian opinion, for the most part the data from this question is actually less disturbing than one might fear. The poll shows bin Laden with almost non-existent support in Turkey (2%) and Lebanon (4%), where by comparison Barack Obama scores decent numbers (33% in Turkey and 45% in Lebanon). Osama bin Laden scores only modest support in Egypt (23%) while President Obama (perhaps aided by his Cairo speech) has a rating of 41%.

By far the most encouraging data again comes from the world’s most populous Muslim country of Indonesia, where Barack Obama scores a 70% rating, as compared to only 25% for Osama bin Laden. Another reassuring number is the low level of confidence for bin Laden in Pakistan at 18%, although George Bush had scored a 5% rating and Obama only scored a 13%–mitigating our relief in their rejection of the world’s most renowned terrorist.

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