by Lucas Galan, Associate Director Research and Insight, Salience Insight
When GFK polled Europeans on their attitudes towards the U.S. back in 2009, the influence of Obama’s leadership was decidedly apparent. Europeans felt optimistic about Obama’s presidency, sensing that he would usher in a return to a better, more responsible U.S. influence on the rest of the world. The so-called ‘Obama Effect’ was ostensible beyond polls, its sometimes naïve eagerness embodied responses such as Nobel Committee’s decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize at the inception of his presidency.
Three years later, that optimism is greatly tempered. Not only has Obama come up short on a lot of his promises, but he has suffered at the hands of an electoral campaign categorised by extreme negativity.
So when Americans elected to give Obama four more years, what was the response across European countries? Well, mostly tepid. While most European national titles cautiously welcomed the re-election of the incumbent president (or at least politely declined to make a judgement) it was in stark contrast to the gushing optimism of 2008.
A bit of a chill up north...
Perhaps the harshest criticism was felt in the U.K., America’s closest ally in the region. Both The Times and the FT had mused on the shortcomings of the campaign, with the latter going so far as to describe both candidates as ‘risk-averse’ and ‘poor of ambition’ with the former describing the American choice as more ‘inclined to punish George W. Bush once again for the chaos that Mr. Obama inherited, than to reward him for what he has made of it’. Meanwhile The Guardian was decidedly pro-Obama, but welcomed the news with more relief than confidence devoting significant space to reflecting on the expense and mean-spirited electioneering that characterised recent months.
France’s response was similarly lukewarm. Le Monde was somewhat complimentary of Obama’s ‘brilliant revenge’ on the uncooperative Republicans, but both Le Figaro and La Tribune contributed little beyond factual reporting of the elections results mixed with acknowledgement of America’s difficult and divided position.
Germany and Belgium offered a more balanced approach but still only cautiously endorsed the president. Both the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Het Nieuwsblad offered positive reviews of Obama’s first term, and welcomed his return. Conversely, Die Zeit deemed the president’s initial reign disappointing. Der Spiegel was also less enthusiastic about America’s overall situation, publishing a cartoon of a bedridden Uncle Sam titled "The American Patient." In an amusing display of indifference the Het Laatste Nieuws, a Belgian paper, went to print before the election results were decided and published alternative front pages for both a Democratic and Republican victory. It urged readers to throw away the one that didn’t come to pass.
...but it was warmer down south.
Further south, attitudes toward Obama’s victory were far warmer. Perhaps seeing a reflection of their own economic woes and an overall antipathy towards the type of cuts proposed by Mr. Romney, the Spanish and Italian mainstream were largely supportive of Obama’s re-election. Both El Mundo and El Pais, Spain’s major newspapers, offered enthusiastic reporting of Obama’s election. His claim that ‘the best is yet to come’ was widely echoed in both countries, and made headlines in El Pais and La Stampa. The only dissent was in the form of a negative outlook for America’s general situation, with Spain’s La Vanguardia and Italy’s Il Giornale taking a gloomy view of the second term, the latter going so far as to describe Americans as ‘rich but sad’ and of being disappointed following hopes raised by the Obama dream.
Romney vs. Obama: The view from Europe
Romney’s appeal to the extreme right, his somewhat bumbling attitudes toward foreign policy, and his generally less progressive policies on abortion and marriage put him at odds with the slight left leaning palate of the European mainstream. Obama’s more socially conscious approach naturally resonates more with this audience.
However, reception for Obama’s second term was a far cry from that in 2008. Beleaguered from the start, Obama has suffered in trying to bring his idealistic promises to reality in the face of tenacious Republican resistance. On the foreign policy front, victories such as pulling out of Iraq and the death of Osama Bin Laden have been counterbalanced by wanton use of drones and failure to close Guantanamo.
While it may be that had Europe voted in the U.S. elections it too would have chosen Mr. Obama, it would have done so with some reluctance. In as far as the media is representative of its population, Europe appears to have awakened from the last four years with an Obama-effect hangover embracing the president’s re-election with a more realistic and tempered attitude toward his capabilities. Not sensing the panacean promise of change, then, but at least a recognising a path forward.
(Thanks to Postcards from Europe for the illustration.)
Lucas Galan is Associate Director Research & Insight at Report International / Salience Insight.