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Tale of Two Presidents: Obama and Putin

Tale of Two Presidents: Obama and Putin

by Amb. Stuart Holliday and Jon Clifton

When President Barack Obama took office, the world's approval ratings of U.S. leadership skyrocketed. The 15-percentage-point increase was the most dramatic shift in approval ratings in Gallup's eight years of tracking how the world feels about the leadership of the U.S. and other world powers, including Russia, China, Germany and the European Union.

Even amid a number of setbacks globally -- such as the National Security Agency leaks and the rise of the Islamic State group after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq -- the world's attitude toward U.S. leadership hasn't worsened in the past year. Today, a median of 45% of the world approves of the job performance of the leadership of the U.S., giving it the highest approval ratings out of the five world powers measured for the second consecutive year.

Although the U.S. has the highest global leadership approval ratings in the world, this same sentiment isn't shared at home. In fact, for the first time in Gallup's tracking, Obama's approval ratings at home are now lower than his global approval ratings. Fifty-eight percent of Americans believe that leaders around the world don't respect Obama, and only 39% of Americans approve of the way the president is handling foreign affairs. The latter represents one of the lowest marks a U.S. president has received since Gallup began tracking that question during former President Ronald Reagan's time in office.


Turning to Russia, we see the opposite story. For the past decade, Russia's leadership has consistently received the lowest approval ratings worldwide. This year, only a median of 22% of the world approved of the job performance of the leadership of Russia. In defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin, roughly 27% of the world gave no opinion on this question, but Russia's leadership also received the highest median disapproval rating in the world (36%), arguably making the country the least popular of the world powers Gallup measures. But how do Russians feel about Putin back home? Eighty-three percent of Russians approved of Putin's job performance in June 2014 -- a 29-point jump after the Sochi Winter Olympics and the situation with Crimea.


The data tell a story: Putin is not popular globally, but he is extremely respected back home -- while Obama is popular abroad, but slightly less so at home.

This raises the question of whether leaders should worry about how they're perceived globally.

Global thought leader Joseph Nye developed a concept known as "soft power," which is generally the amount of power a leader has to accomplish his or her objectives without using sanctions or military might. Countries simply cooperate with the leader because they want to. The ability to shape international public perception or approval is key to wielding soft power effectively. Recent research suggests this is true. Academics at Dartmouth College and the University of Sydney found that, "public opinion about U.S. foreign policy in foreign countries does affect their policies toward the U.S. ..."

So, if global approval ratings matter, would you rather be Putin or Obama? The inverse approval ratings of the two leaders at home and abroad are striking -- but the best of both worlds is possible. The country with the second-highest global approval rating is Germany, at 41%. Additionally, Chancellor Angela Merkel's approval ratings at home are a staggering 72%. So a model for accomplishing things both at home and internationally might be viewed through the leadership lens of Germany.


This op-ed was originally published on the Congress Blog.


Stuart Holliday, former U.S. ambassador for Special Political Affairs at the U.N. under President George W. Bush, is president and CEO of the Meridian International Center.

Jon Clifton is Managing Director, Gallup World Poll.

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