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Bearing hopes of the world

Expectations for Obama may have been too high

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009

How will the story of Barack Obama's presidency end? Obama may leave audiences cheering and go down in history as one of the most successful presidents this country has ever had. But he may well end his time in office as one of the most disappointing leaders the world has seen.

The world expects so much from Obama and from America under his leadership that the president may find he walked onto the stage to play out a script that ends with a wave of global disillusionment. Nobody can meet the expectations that have grown for the new American superstar.

A new survey of global attitudes by the Pew Research Center shows how much of the world is entranced with the new president. George W. Bush liked to benefit from low expectations (and he still managed to disappoint). Obama, for his part, is basking in international adulation. That can prove useful in lining up support for American policies, but it also creates the potential for heartbreak.

Consider, for example, that an astonishing 93 percent of Germans expect Obama to "do the right thing in world affairs." Across Western Europe huge majorities seem convinced that Obama's America will do what they think is right. That may be the only issue on which such a high number of Europeans agree. There is little consensus on what exactly the "right thing" is on almost any foreign-policy issue.

Whatever he does, Obama inevitably will disappoint a large number of people.

No matter how he ultimately performs, Obama's rise to power with all its symbolism ensured that he has already earned a prominent place in history as the first nonwhite president of the United States. But the high hopes with which the world greeted him did not come just from the color of his skin or the unusual arc of his life story. No, Obama himself, with his extraordinary power to inspire at a time of national despondency and global frustration with America helped build a level of expectations that no president can possibly satisfy.

Imagine: Even the French like America now! The Pew Global Attitudes Poll found 75 percent in France have a favorable view of the United States. That's a swift jump from 42 percent just last year.

America's standing improved almost everywhere in the world. Africa, by the way, is where the most passionate America-lovers live. Fully 90 percent of Kenyans think well of the United States.

That's even higher than the 88 percent of Americans who like America. The Kenyan love affair with the United States cannot be traced to Obama, even if the president's father came from that country. Love already had bloomed before the election. In fact, it may be affection for America that brought the elder Obama to the states, rather than the opposite.

Ironically, the region of the world the president has worked hardest to seduce is the only place where eyes do not flutter fondly for the United States. The Middle East remains stubbornly anti-American. Only Israel and Lebanon had majorities with favorable feelings for this country. In Israel, the numbers declined slightly but remain above 70 percent. Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Territories all showed strongly anti-U.S. feelings.

In the Palestinian Territories, just 15 percent like the United States, essentially unchanged from the last time the poll was taken there. And Turkey, a majority Muslim country where Obama gave a major speech previewing his historic Cairo address to the Muslim world, produced the lowest favorability rating for the United States, at just 14 percent.

Overall, however, Obama can boast of having more admirers than Osama bin Laden in the Muslim world, the first time an American president scores higher than the head of al Qaeda among majority-Muslim countries. In Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, Jordan and Indonesia, bin Laden lost the mano-a-mano to Obama. Unfortunately, bin Laden remains more popular than the U.S. president in Pakistan and in the Palestinian Territories.

Fully 55 percent of Palestinians say they have faith in bin Laden, compared to just 22 percent who trust Obama.

The president can take pride in having given a powerful boost to the country's standing. In America and in much of the world, most people hold high hopes for Obama's success. There is little doubt that he will disappoint at least some of the people some of the time. But when the final curtain comes down in the play starring Barack Obama, at least the majority of people in the Middle East will not be disappointed. They were the only ones who did not start out falling in love with the lead character.

• Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.



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