No Perceived Gains in U.S. World Standing Post-Bush

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Just 32% are satisfied with the United States’ position in the world

PRINCETON, NJ -- It is apparently going to take more than having a new president for Americans to perceive increased international prestige for the United States. Even though a new Gallup Poll finds Americans widely perceiving that other world leaders respect President Obama, just 32% are satisfied with the position of the United States in the world today, and 45% believe other countries perceive the United States favorably -- both little changed from last year, when George W. Bush was still president.

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These results are based on Gallup's annual World Affairs poll, conducted each February since 2001, including Feb. 9-12 of this year.

President Obama will attempt to improve the United States' international image, beginning with his visit to Canada on Thursday, his first international trip as president. Obama seems better positioned to handle this than his immediate predecessor. The 2009 poll finds 67% of Americans saying world leaders respect Obama, compared with just 24% who said this about Bush a year ago.

Obama's score on this measure rivals that of Bush shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (75%), when he enjoyed wide public support.

Despite this, Obama has much work to do to improve Americans' views of their nation's international standing. Since the early part of the Bush presidency, Gallup has documented a significant decline in Americans' satisfaction with the United States' position in the world. This measure barely increased from 30% in 2008 to 32% after Obama's inauguration.

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Gallup's annual polling on World Affairs also shows a decline since 2002 in the percentage of Americans who think the United States rates favorably in the eyes of the world. Again, there is little sign of improvement in these views since Bush departed from the White House.

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The downward paths of both trends likely reflect Americans' recognition that many Bush-era foreign policies were not supported by leaders of other countries. The most notable of these was the war in Iraq, but there were others such as the Kyoto global warming agreement and the controversial treatment of war prisoners.

Obama has pledged a new and arguably more cooperative approach to foreign policy, and has named special envoys to the Middle East and the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, as well as signaling the possibility of direct diplomacy with Iran. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also taken extended foreign trips.

This new leadership and new approach to foreign policy may help explain the slight increase in the percentage of Americans who believe the United States should take "the leading role" in world affairs. Currently, 23% of Americans say this, the highest Gallup has measured since February 2003, when 26% did. As has typically been the case, a majority (52%) say the United States should play "a major role, but not the leading role" in world affairs. Only about one in four Americans say the United States should play a minor role (17%) or no role at all (6%).

Obama's Initial Foreign Affairs Approval Rating

Since much of Obama's work as president to date has focused on domestic concerns like the economy, it is not surprising that a substantial proportion of Americans (24%) do not yet have an opinion on how the new president has handled foreign affairs. But so far, many more approve (54%) than disapprove (22%) of his actions in this area.

That compares with a 59% approval rating and a 30% disapproval rating for his handling of the economy.

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Both of these are somewhat lower than his overall approval rating, which has averaged 65% to date in Gallup Poll Daily tracking.

Implications

Thus far, Americans perceive no immediate benefit to the United States' world standing from the recent transition of power from the Bush to the Obama administration. But Americans do think the potential is there, given the widely held view that other world leaders respect Obama.

Obama's trip to Canada on Thursday will begin to shine a brighter light on his foreign policy, and on his ability to make progress for the United States in international affairs.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,022 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-12, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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