Obama: President for the world

While Barack Obama and John McCain took an interest in world affairs during the first presidential debate, the world started taken an interest in the election much earlier.

As you may have heard, America will soon be holding a presidential election. Americans don’t like to rush into these things, so preparations for the final event have been drawing media attention for the better part of two years. (To many in the public, and no doubt to some of the direct participants, it seems even longer than that.)

Owing to the lively and unusual cast of principal characters – as well as to widespread discontent with the White House’s current leading man, George W. Bush – the election has also drawn unusual early attention overseas. A Pew Global Attitudes survey carried out in 24 countries earlier this year, found considerable interest in the US presidential campaign in some of the surveyed countries. A large majority of Japanese said  they were following the election very closely (24%) or somewhat closely (59%). By comparison, at that time a third of Americans were following the election very closely, with another 47% saying they were tracking the campaign somewhat closely. At least half of those surveyed in Germany (56%), Australia (52%), Jordan (50%) and Britain (50%) were following the election closely.

Interest was lower in other countries, but, six months before the big event, still substantial. In France, 40% said they were monitoring the race along with 33% in Mexico, 25% in Spain, but only 17% in China. And despite the fact that one of
the major presidential contenders, Barack Obama, spent several years of his childhood in
Indonesia, only 15% of Indonesians were closely following the election. No public, however, was less interested than the Argentines – only 10% were paying much attention.

As for preferences between the two candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, Obama was the clear winner. Among those paying attention to the campaign, in only one of the 24 countries surveyed did a majority express confidence in McCain to do the right thing in world affairs and that country was the United States, where he tied with Obama on that measure. Jordan and Pakistan also accorded the two candidates equal (but failing) grades in the foreign policy arena. But elsewhere around the world, Obama was the clear favorite at the time of the survey.

The gap between perceptions of Obama and McCain were especially large in Western Europe. For example, in Spain, confidence in Obama (72%) topped confidence in McCain (19%) by more than three to one. In both France and Germany, more than 80% voiced confidence in Obama, while just one-in-three said the same about McCain. Obama was also more warmly received in the Asia/Pacific region; roughly eight-in-ten Australians (81%) and Japanese (77%) said he had their confidence, while just 40% in each country said the same of McCain. And in his former boyhood home, Indonesia, Obama is far more popular among those who are following the race. Finally, Obama is more popular than McCain in another part of the world where he has family ties: East Africa (his father was from Kenya). While 84% of Tanzanians believe he will do the right thing in international affairs, just half say this about his Republican rival. 

But when all is finally said and done, how much difference will the outcome of the election make? Many of those following the presidential contest closely were optimistic about the next administration’s foreign policy -- perhaps not a surprising phenomenon, given the broad unpopularity of America’s current policies. When asked whether next year, when there is a new U.S. president, U.S. foreign policy will change for the better, for the worse, or not change much at all, majorities or pluralities in 14 countries -- including the United States itself -- said it will change for the better (65%). This includes more than six-in-ten in the Western European nations of France (68% change for the better), Spain (67%) and Germany (64%), where opposition to U.S. foreign policy has been strong throughout much of the Bush presidency. But it also includes solid majorities in several countries where opposition to Bush’s foreign policy has been less pervasive, such as India (59%) and the African nations of Nigeria (67%), South Africa (66%), and Tanzania ((40%).  In five nations, however, the most common view was that little change is in the offing. This was especially true in Japan (67% not change much) as well as in Turkey (43%), Russia (42%), South Korea (41%) and Mexico (40%). And in a few countries, significant minorities--including a 37%-plurality in Egypt, as well as 36% in Jordan and 33% in  Lebanon (33%)--worry that U.S. foreign policy will only get worse.