The rest of the world fell as hard for Barack Obama as Americans did.
Back in 2008, the same qualities in the 47-year-old senator from Illinois that excited U.S. voters enthralled people around the globe. He was a fresh face and a compelling orator. He had spent his childhood in the Asia-Pacific, and his skin color alone made billions of people feel a connection with him. Perhaps most importantly, he was not George W. Bush, the president who invaded Iraq. Obama promised “hope” and “change” and people believed he could deliver—that he would end wars in Muslim countries, improve America’s standing on human rights, even alleviate global poverty. “Yes we can!” shouted The Age, an Australian newspaper, when he won office. Just months later, the rookie president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a nod more to his promise than to anything he had accomplished.
Obama’s overseas poll numbers were stratospheric in those early days. In countries like France and Germany, more than 90 percent of people surveyed by the Pew Research Center expressed confidence that Obama would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Even in some Middle Eastern countries, where U.S. presidents are rarely liked, nearly half of the populace had high expectations for Obama.
But peace did not arrive in Obama’s time. Obama’s standing in much of the world seemed to sag each year as he struggled to fulfill his promises. America, after all, still has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Middle East, revolutionary movements, including ones Obama overtly backed, have largely fizzled or bred violent anarchy. And Russia has ignored Obama’s warnings and asserted its influence in former Soviet states, sometimes at the point of a gun. Many saw in this picture a naive president and a United States of diminished standing. In Jordan, confidence in Obama fell from 31 percent in 2009 to 14 percent last year, the Pew surveys show. Some 86 percent of Britons expressed confidence in Obama in 2009; in 2015, it was 76 percent. Even in Kenya, where Obama has family ties, confidence in him stood at 80 percent in 2015, down from the mid-90s his first two years. The numbers don’t suggest deep antipathy toward Obama, but the heady infatuation that accompanied his arrival in office has changed into pervasive disappointment.
In an effort to capture this evolving view of Obama’s historic presidency, last month, POLITICO, in collaboration with the BBC World Service, visited three countries critical to Obama’s foreign policy—Cuba, Egypt and Ukraine. A radio documentary of our interviews with dozens of citizens in those and other nations airs this weekend. In each country, we discovered a palpable sense of discontent with the now gray-haired American leader. Many Ukrainians believe Obama is too meek in the face-off with Russia over their country. Egyptians fighting for democracy and human rights feel abandoned by Obama, who has had to balance their shifting desires with the U.S. national interest. And Cubans, while grateful to Obama for his efforts to open up their communist system, express impatience that he has not done more to speed up their slow—very slow—march toward prosperity.
Obama remains far more popular than Bush was at the end of his tenure. And the most recent Pew survey, which covers 2016, shows confidence in Obama to be on the upswing in some countries, including Britain, China and Spain. One possible reason is the rise of a Republican presidential candidate whose comments on everything from trade to terrorism have rattled the world. As POLITICO discovered in Cuba, Egypt and Ukraine, few things make people long for the extension of an Obama presidency more than the words “Donald Trump.”
SOURCE: NAHAL TOOSI