Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Changing Image of America

My family just returned from a wonderful vacation in Australia.  It was a terrific trip and included a number of really special memories made at places like Darling Harbor in Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef.  We like to travel abroad about once a year in order to experience other cultures, see new things and challenge our perspectives.  There is, of course, a great big world out there beyond the borders of the USA.

One thing that I was struck by on this recent trip, however, was the dramatic change in perceptions of the United States government -- and our president in particular -- among "local" residents in the country we were visiting.  In recent years, I've had surprising conversations with waiters, taxi drivers and train passengers in countries such as France, Spain, Italy and England . . . conversations that have left me a bit disheartened about how people in those countries viewed our government as reckless and imperialist.  So it was shocking and altogether encouraging to hear quite different comments from average working folks in Australia, all of whom expressed confidence in our current president as a man of diplomacy and restraint (and a sense of admiration for America that we elected someone as our chief executive who would not have been allowed to use the same Mississippi drinking fountain as me just two generations ago).

I decided to explore this observation and try to determine whether this was just my own anecdotal experience in recent years, or perhaps if my own biases (I was a 2008 Obama campaign donor and supporter) were clouding my perceptions.  Having done so over the last few days, it turns out the data confirms what my eyes and ears observed first-hand: the image of America is changing in the world, and it's changing for the better.

A deep dive into public opinion polls regarding how residents of other countries perceive our country reveals some staggering shifts over just the past two years.  According to the Pew Research Institute, take a look at the changes in the percentages of people living in each of the following countries who perceived the USA in a favorable light in 2007 (President Bush) and then in 2009 (President Obama):

Canada -- from 55% to 68%
Britain -- from 51% to 69%
France -- from 39% to 75%
Germany -- from 30% to 64%
Spain -- from 34% to 58%

The list goes on and the numbers are often more dramatic in other countries.  Importantly, our image in the four major developing "BRIC" countries has improved across the board (Brazil, up 17 points; Russia, up three points; India, up 17 points; and China, up 13 points).  Overall, there have been significant improvements in the image of America since President Obama took office in 22 of the 24 countries worldwide for whom reliable data is available.

And by the way, it turns out that our family's recent interactions in Australia were indeed accurate representations of public opinion down under.  A recent poll there found that trust in the United States has risen since President Obama took office: 83% of Australians now trust America "a great deal" or "somewhat" to act responsibly in the world, up a stunning 23 points from a few years ago.  This is a particularly welcome turnaround in that country, where a 2005 poll found that as many Australians were worried by U.S. foreign policies under President Bush as they were by Islamic fundamentalism.

This changing image of America in countries around the world -- ranging from wealthy English-speaking democracies to Middle Eastern nations besieged by turmoil to totalitarian societies in Asia -- adds up to an astonishing development that is clearly the single most important accomplishment of the Obama Administration to date: the United States has already returned to the #1 position as the world's most admired country.

In the Nation's Brand Index, a sophisticated measure of how the 50 largest countries in the world are perceived globally, the United States soared from 7th place at the end of 2008 to 1st place at the end of 2009.  "What’s really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we saw for the United States in 2009,” said Simon Anholt, the director of the study. “Despite recent economic turmoil, the U.S. actually gained significant ground. The results suggest that the new U.S. administration has been well received abroad, and the American electorate’s decision to vote in President Obama has given the Unites States the status of the world’s most admired country.”

For President Obama, this tremendous achievement on the world stage is ironic -- it comes at a time when his favorability ratings among likely American voters is at or near its lowest since he took office.  The divisive battle over health care reform, soaring federal budget deficits and -- most of all -- an economy that appears to be recovering too slowly to support much-needed jobs growth has taken a brutal toll on the President's popularity at home.  This domestic political trouble is likely to cost his party a substantial number of seats in Congress this fall, which will in turn have an impact on the nature and scope of his agenda in the remaining two years of his first term.  And while it's far too early to be thinking about his vulnerability in 2012 -- his approval ratings today are actually tracking slightly ahead of where President Reagan's numbers were at the same point in his first term -- there is no doubt that the anti-Obama opposition is growing in numbers and in organization by the day.

But for now, it's refreshing to drink from the wells of optimism and appreciate that we live in a country that is once again so widely admired around the world.  The changing image of America is good news for international trade, global cooperation among nations, and even humble American tourists looking to find a great place to have dinner in a foreign country.

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