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Reporter’s Podcast: Survey Shows Europeans Back Obama on Most Issues

A recent German Marshall Fund poll that gauged Europeans’ views of President Barack Obama shows generally positive ratings, except in some areas of foreign policy such as Afghanistan.



Michael Mosettig of the NewsHour reports.


MICHAEL MOSETTIG, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: President Obama may have had a summer swoon in the polls in the United States, but he has enjoyed a huge surge of popularity in Europe. That’s the reading of the latest poll of trans-Atlantic attitudes conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

But even in the heady European numbers, there are some warnings for Mr. Obama on specific issues such as Afghanistan.

Here are some key numbers, in the polling in 12 European countries from Britain to Turkey. There was also parallel polling in the United States.

Confidence in Mr. Obama’s handling of international affairs is at stratospheric levels in Western Europe: from 82 percent in Britain to 92 percent in Germany. President Bush’s comparable numbers were in the teens when he left office. But go further east, and the enthusiasm dips to the high 50s in Romania and Poland, putting Mr. Obama only 18 points ahead of President Bush, who was popular in that part of Europe.

Karen Donfried is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund.

KAREN DONFRIED, German Marshall Fund: Well, it’s interesting, because what we know from the public opinion survey is that 92 percent of Germans or 91 percent of Italians approve of President Obama’s handling of international policies. Of course, it doesn’t tell us why you’ve seen this dramatic swing in opinion, and it is a dramatic swing.

For example, in the case of Germany, when we asked Germans that same question last year about President George Bush, only 12 percent of Germans approved of his handling of international policies. So that’s an 80 percentage point swing in the course of one year.

So the shift is stunning. What is causing that? I think part of it is that for many West Europeans in particular Barack Obama embodies for them the American dream. Sort of the best that America has to offer in terms of someone who is a minority from a single-parent household making it to the highest office in the country.

I think also there could be sense that his policy preferences are perhaps more in line with those of Europe. But the very interesting thing in this survey is that even though we see this dramatic Obama bounce, when we ask specific questions about policies that are important to the Obama administration, you did not see major swings in European opinion, whether it was sending troops to Afghanistan or how to deal with an Iran that may be acquiring a nuclear weapon.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: And, says Donfried, this has translated into more European confidence in U.S. leadership.

KAREN DONFRIED: It was interesting, the numbers were strong there. When you compare European responses, whether they have confidence in Barack Obama, or whether they have confidence in the European Union, Barack Obama’s numbers were higher. So we found that quite interesting that they have greater confidence in this new U.S. president to manage foreign policy challenges than they do in the European Union.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: But again with a difference between Western Europe and Central/Eastern Europe.

KAREN DONFRIED: If we take that question that we referenced earlier about: “Do you approve of President Obama’s handling of international policy?” — 86 percent of West Europeans approve, whereas 64 percent of Central and East Europeans approve. And I should point out that for Central and Eastern Europe here we’re talking about Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia. Those are the four Central and East European countries we surveyed here.

So, you know, there’s slightly over a 20 percentage-point difference between West and Central and East European views. We thought that was striking.

It’s also interesting, because if you look back at last year’s data, and at the approval ratings for President Bush, only 17 percent of West Europeans approved of his handling of international policy as compared to 32 percent of Central and East Europeans. So last year, the Central and East Europeans were more positive though granted those were very low numbers.

That said, last year 32 percent of Central and East Europeans approved. This year, 64 percent, so it’s a doubling.

So if you’re sitting in the Obama administration, you would probably look at those numbers and say those numbers are not that bad, 64 percent of Central and East Europeans approve of Obama’s handling of international policies. And that’s in the wake of the administration having set the reset button on Russia, something that had been, as you pointed out, quite contentious in Central and Eastern Europe.

So it’s interesting, because you get to this question of how do you interpret that difference, depending on where you’re sitting in Europe. And we’ve heard different interpretations of this. One of the ones I find compelling is that Central and East Europeans still perceive a real security threat from Russia. But that’s just my interpretation. I mean, you could also say this shows that the administration has to treat these relationships with Central and East European allies with some care because there’s this important difference in level of approval across the continent.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: But there are political traps potentially awaiting the U.S. president and his administration, the biggest probably over Afghanistan. At least half the Europeans want to get their troops out of that country.

KAREN DONFRIED: We had one question that was asking about optimism about stabilizing Afghanistan, and only 32 percent of Europeans were optimistic that we would succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, whereas 56 percent of Americans expressed optimism about that.

Then we had this question that really had four parts. It was saying, you know, your country has troops in Afghanistan, which is true for all of the 13 countries in the survey. And then it said, you know: “Would you support increasing that troop presence, maintaining the same level, reducing or, finally, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan?” And we were quite struck by the fact that if you combine the answers — reduce or withdraw troops from Afghanistan — you get majorities in every country in this survey except for the United States.

Bulgaria and Romania are just above 70 percent majorities wanting to reduce or withdraw, in Germany it’s a 57 percent majority, and then Netherlands is at 50 and Turkey is at 50. And that was quite striking.

So if the Obama administration is hoping, and it may well not be, but if it’s hoping to get additional troop support from its NATO allies for Afghanistan there certainly is not public support for that.

Now, we also asked would you support additional economic reconstruction for Afghanistan, and on that in most European countries you got a majority saying yes, we’re willing to give more support for economic reconstruction. So it suggests that if the administration is looking for the Europeans to carry a heavier load they probably shouldn’t look to combat troops, but rather to support for economic reconstruction.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: On Iran, 48 percent of Europeans favor diplomatic pressure to prevent the mullahs from obtaining nuclear weapons, while 47 percent of Americans want to keep open the option of using military force. But is that gap as big as it first appears?

KAREN DONFRIED: We have this question that essentially is about how you deal with Iran’s nuclear program. And so it reminds the respondent that we’re engaged in diplomatic negotiations with Iran and it says, you know, if those negotiations fail, would you be willing to increase diplomatic pressure and maintain the military option, that’s where a plurality of Americans end up — 47 percent. Or do you want to increase diplomatic pressure but rule out the use of military force, that’s where the plurality of Europeans — 48 percent — end up.

So there is this difference. Now, your question is, might you have expected a starker difference. Hard to say. I mean, it is striking in this survey that every time we ask about the use of military force, whether it’s in the context of Afghanistan, whether it’s in the context of Iran, or we also have a broader question where we say are there any circumstances under which force is necessary to obtain justice — actually, I believe it’s war is necessary to obtain justice. Seventy-one percent of Americans agree with that statement. Seventy-one percent of Europeans disagree with that statement. So clearly there is something fundamentally divergent in the way Americans and Europeans view the use of force.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: On the economic front, the global financial panic and recession have encouraged rather than discouraged European confidence in U.S. economic leadership. But, interestingly enough, while three-quarters of Americans have felt personally affected by the crisis, only 55 percent of Europeans say the same — a testimony to the stronger social and economic safety nets in Europe.

While the poll was taken in June, before the dramatic summer drop in President Obama’s popularity in the United States, it’s unlikely anything like that has happened in Europe. Among other things, Europeans have much more vacation time, double or triple that of Americans, and they were enjoying their holidays on the beaches and in the mountains, not convulsed in politics and town meetings on health care.

For the Online NewsHour, this is Michael Mosettig.

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