Obama still enjoys wide popular support overseas, but with reservations


South Koreans attend a U.S. presidential election watch event on Nov. 7 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
November 7, 2012

Four years ago, the world exalted in the election of America’s first black president, seeing in Barack Obama an affirmation of the American dream and the prospect of dramatic possibility after eight years under George W. Bush.

As people across the globe watched Obama roll to a second term Tuesday night, there was more indifference than exuberance. Although Obama still enjoys wide popular support overseas, his first term in office has left many with a sense of the United States as a somewhat distracted power with less ability to influence world events.

The intervening four years have brought an escalating sovereign-debt crisis in the euro zone, an increasingly bloody civil war in Syria and a newly assertive China. Through it all, Obama has kept his principal focus on events at home, and the world has taken note.

Perhaps nowhere was the shift in mood greater than in the president’s ancestral home of Kenya, which in 2008 was gripped by Obama-mania. The capital, Nairobi, was plastered with his likeness on T-shirts, key chains and even a beer brand.

This year, Obama paraphernalia was hard to find anywhere. And though he is still the favorite among Kenyans — wild celebrations erupted in his family’s home village when his victory became apparent — there is a widespread belief that the first American president of African descent had largely neglected the continent.

“When Obama was elected in 2008, he gained the status of a demigod of some sort in most of Africa. The years that followed, however, were marked by disappointment,” wrote Charles ­Onyango-Obbo, a columnist for Daily Nation, Kenya’s most respected newspaper.

The feeling was similar Tuesday in Mexico, where many expressed frustration that neither Obama nor Republican nominee Mitt Romney addressed key cross-
border issues such as bilateral trade, immigration, arms smuggling or the 60,000 Mexicans killed in drug violence.

“In the last debate between Obama and Romney, the candidates expressed regret for the 30,000 killed in the conflict in Syria. Not one word for the Mexican humanitarian tragedy in Mexico,” Sergio Aguayo, a professor at the College of Mexico, said in an online debate forum called “El Palenque.”

And in the Arab Middle East, there was a sense that the United States has been largely absent. For Egypt, “it does not matter much who wins,” said Abdo Deif, a cashier at a Cairo supermarket. “With the state the country is in, there is no time to discuss the U.S. elections, not now when people are worried about water, bread and gas.”

Libya may be an exception to the ambivalence. Despite a September attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, the United States has enjoyed greater popularity in Libya than elsewhere in the Middle East because of its role in supporting the country’s revolution last year. “We are very interested in how this election goes,” said Tarek Ali, a gold seller in Tripoli. “Personally, I love Obama.”

In Europe, too, Obama was the overwhelming favorite, according to many polls, including one by the German Marshall Fund and another by GlobeScan/PIPA for the BBC.

In Germany, where more than 200,000 people turned out in Berlin to support Obama during his 2008 campaign, even many right-wing politicians privately said they were hoping he wins reelection.

But Germans have seen many of their hopes turn to disappointment as Obama pivoted to the Asia-Pacific in a search for new business partners. Now Germans see the United States as a fading superpower, and many expect that the United States will continue what they view as its global retreat.

One place where the view of Obama has been more sharply conflicted is Israel, where many fear a second Obama term will lead to tension over Iran and more pressure to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

In Afghanistan, Obama is disliked for having escalated the war, but many Afghans also fear the consequences of his decision to withdraw U.S. troops by the end of 2014, with some concerned that it could lead to a collapse of the Kabul government.

Obama has taken tough trade actions against China, including filing a complaint in September with the World Trade Organization over Beijing’s subsidies for exported car parts and an earlier 2009 anti-dumping complaint over Chinese tires.

But Chinese academics and others viewed the moves as attempts to win over voters in the key swing state of Ohio, and predicted that a less-aggressive strategy would prevail now that the election has passed.

Richburg reported from Beijing. Sudarsan Raghavan in Nairobi, William Booth in Mexico City, Abigail Hauslohner in Tripoli, Pamela Constable in Kabul, Edward Cody in Paris, Ingy Hassieb in Cairo, Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem and Michael Birnbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.

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