The word “populism” has had a good week, but President Obama took issue with the meaning of that word Wednesday in Ottawa:
It’s a bit long-winded, but we here at Spoiler Alerts applaud the president for challenging conceptual premises. Indeed, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts likes to look at public opinion polls to see if things are actually popular. For example, despite claims to the contrary, it’s not at all obvious that the American people have turned super-protectionist.
I bring this up because Pew Global Attitudes has just released a survey that offers up some powerful ammunition showing that in the eyes of Americans and the rest of the world, no one needs to make America great again — America is already there:
As he nears the end of his presidency, Barack Obama continues to enjoy a broad degree of international popularity. A new Pew Research Center survey conducted in 10 European nations, four major Asia-Pacific countries, Canada and the United States finds that half or more of those polled in 15 of 16 countries express confidence in the American leader.
Three charts from Pew help to explain the legacy that Barack Obama leaves for the next administration. The first is confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing in world politics:
To be sure, Obama’s popularity is not that high everywhere, such as the Middle East. Still, Europe and the Pacific Rim are kind of important regions, so it’s good to see these kind of numbers.
Now, cynics will suggest that the reason that Obama is so popular in the world is because he’s feckless and weak and appeases America’s adversaries and so foreigners like him because he capitulates to their demands. But if that were true, then foreigners wouldn’t think of the United States as terribly powerful. And this leads to the second chart:
It’s not just that Europeans trust the United States more; for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis, Europeans now recognize the United States and not China as the most powerful economy in the world. This corrects a misperception that the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been banging on about for quite a while. It’s good to see public perceptions match reality more closely.
Of course, these are Europeans, and things have not been going well on that continent, so this might just be a “grass is greener on the other side of the Atlantic” phenomenon. Which leads us, ineluctably, to the last chart:
American public attitudes that China was the greatest economic power in the world has been a misperception that has frustrated Spoiler Alerts for quite some time now. So it’s good to see that in the past three years, Americans have adjusted their opinions to better reflect reality.
I have my issues with Obama’s presidency and his approach to foreign policy, but it’s worth stepping back for a second and considering these shifts in public attitudes as a significant accomplishment. When Obama was elected, the United States was not terribly well-liked in the world. By the time he was sworn in, a growing share of the world’s population — including Americans — believed that American power and influence were on the wane. Nearly eight years later, the United States is looked upon more favorably in most (although not all) parts of the globe, and perceptions of American economic power have returned to pre-2008 levels. Americans themselves have greater confidence in the relative power of the U.S. economy than at any time in the post-2008 era.
None of these outcomes — particularly perceptions of economic influence — was preordained after the 2008 financial crisis. I have no doubt that a lot of readers believe that Obama has squandered the public goodwill given to him by the rest of the world. But credit where it’s due: If perception itself is a form of power, then Obama has made the United States great again.
And as someone who remembers the world in the fall of 2008, that is no small achievement.