POLITICO: How the World Fell Out of Love With Obama

obamaAlthough Politico does try to make Obama sound pretty good, given the circumstances, in this piece, it’s funny to see how people who once loved him are now so disappointed.


The rest of the world fell as hard for Barack Obama as Americans did.

Back in 2008, the same qualities in the 47-year-old senator from Illinois that excited U.S. voters enthralled people around the globe. He was a fresh face and a compelling orator. He had spent his childhood in the Asia-Pacific, and his skin color alone made billions of people feel a connection with him. Perhaps most importantly, he was not George W. Bush, the president who invaded Iraq. Obama promised “hope” and “change” and people believed he could deliver—that he would end wars in Muslim countries, improve America’s standing on human rights, even alleviate global poverty. “Yes we can!” shouted The Age, an Australian newspaper, when he won office. Just months later, the rookie president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a nod more to his promise than to anything he had accomplished.

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Obama’s overseas poll numbers were stratospheric in those early days. In countries like France and Germany, more than 90 percent of people surveyed by the Pew Research Center expressed confidence that Obama would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Even in some Middle Eastern countries, where U.S. presidents are rarely liked, nearly half of the populace had high expectations for Obama.

But peace did not arrive in Obama’s time. Obama’s standing in much of the world seemed to sag each year as he struggled to fulfill his promises. America, after all, still has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Middle East, revolutionary movements, including ones Obama overtly backed, have largely fizzled or bred violent anarchy. And Russia has ignored Obama’s warnings and asserted its influence in former Soviet states, sometimes at the point of a gun. Many saw in this picture a naive president and a United States of diminished standing. In Jordan, confidence in Obama fell from 31 percent in 2009 to 14 percent last year, the Pew surveys show. Some 86 percent of Britons expressed confidence in Obama in 2009; in 2015, it was 76 percent. Even in Kenya, where Obama has family ties, confidence in him stood at 80 percent in 2015, down from the mid-90s his first two years. The numbers don’t suggest deep antipathy toward Obama, but the heady infatuation that accompanied his arrival in office has changed into pervasive disappointment.

In an effort to capture this evolving view of Obama’s historic presidency, last month, POLITICO, in collaboration with the BBC World Service, visited three countries critical to Obama’s foreign policy—Cuba, Egypt and Ukraine. A radio documentary of our interviews with dozens of citizens in those and other nations airs this weekend. In each country, we discovered a palpable sense of discontent with the now gray-haired American leader. Many Ukrainians believe Obama is too meek in the face-off with Russia over their country. Egyptians fighting for democracy and human rights feel abandoned by Obama, who has had to balance their shifting desires with the U.S. national interest. And Cubans, while grateful to Obama for his efforts to open up their communist system, express impatience that he has not done more to speed up their slow—very slow—march toward prosperity.

Obama remains far more popular than Bush was at the end of his tenure. And the most recent Pew survey, which covers 2016, shows confidence in Obama to be on the upswing in some countries, including Britain, China and Spain. One possible reason is the rise of a Republican presidential candidate whose comments on everything from trade to terrorism have rattled the world. As POLITICO discovered in Cuba, Egypt and Ukraine, few things make people long for the extension of an Obama presidency more than the words “Donald Trump.”

Egypt: ‘I think people who were listening to him were naive’

Ahmed Elsayed and Nada Fayez AbouLeila attended Barack Obama’s famous speech in Cairo in 2009, an address the president hoped would help heal the rifts that opened between the U.S. and the Muslim world during the Bush years. Conservatives at home derided the speech as part of an “apology tour.” Muslims, however, praised Obama for using the address to promote human rights, democracy and religious tolerance, and for doing so in their backyard. His simple use of the Muslim greeting, “Assalam-u-aleikum” touched many hearts.

But things were very different back then, especially in Egypt. Few could have predicted that within two years, revolutionary movements would sweep this Arab country and several others, leaving behind civil wars, anarchy and terrorism. So on this dusty June day, as the 20-somethings watch the speech again on a laptop, the memories hurt.

“I think people who were listening to him were naive,” Elsayed says. “A president is just one player in the scene, so a president’s word isn’t always a valid one. Even if he has true good intentions, that doesn’t meant that he would be able to bring them to reality.”

Egypt is one of the clearest examples of Obama’s struggle to balance his idealism and his realism, and it seems he has disappointed Egyptians, especially the youth, at every step. Pew polls show that Egyptians’ confidence in Obama slipped from 42 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2014, the most recent year available.

Many Egyptians are still upset that Obama hesitated for days before finally backing their uprising against longtime President (and stalwart U.S. ally) Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They are frustrated, too, that Obama was slow to accept the military-led, popularly backed 2013 ousting of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected to succeed Mubarak but who quickly alienated some of Egypt’s staunchest democracy activists. And many are now angry that Obama resumed military aid to Egypt’s current government, which is led by a former general and is by many accounts more oppressive than Mubarak’s. Egyptians themselves have vacillated between their support for military rule and democracy, making it even harder for Obama to publicly chide the current government on its actions.

“Human rights is just virtually not even brought up between U.S. leaders and those of Egypt,” said Salma El-Saeed, a journalist with the news site Egyptian Streets.

Egyptians are also despondent over the turmoil in nearby Arab countries, especially Syria, Libya and Iraq, where the Islamic State terrorist network has taken root. They blame Obama for not doing more to stop the violence.

“We thought he would save the world from the terrorists,” said Hiba Rustum, a 28-year-old computer science student. “But he did the opposite.”

Cuba: ‘Thank you for trying to help…But it’s too late.’

Willian Hernandez, a mechanic and a barber, loves his Cuban homeland. And he’s grateful to Barack Obama for restoring America’s ties with the communist-led island last year, a taboo-shattering move that many hope will bring prosperity to this time-capsule of a country.

But Hernandez also believes Obama’s actions came too late, especially for his generation. His phone is filled with video clips of Cuban friends cheering as their boats reach U.S. soil. Hernandez gets emotional as he insists that, no matter what Cuba’s future, he’ll soon go to America, too. After all, he’s already 29.

“You realize that it’s a change which is going to take a long, long time,” he says of Cuba’s potential future. “You only have one life to live and time flies.”

Across Havana, gratitude toward Obama for ending the decades-old Cuban-U.S. estrangement is laced with just such impatience. It’s easy to see why. Cubans struggle every day to meet their basic needs, and Cuban President Raúl Castro’s incremental economic reforms to the communist system haven’t changed their lives quickly enough. Many want Obama to do more to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba, hoping such a move will supercharge the transformation.

Ukraine: ‘Be brave, much more brave.’

The first thing Ukrainians usually say about Barack Obama is that they appreciate what he’s done for them—that they are grateful for his moral and financial support of their efforts to engage more with the European Union and reduce corruption in their government.

Then, some ask if he could do more. Like send weapons to Ukrainian forces battling Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east since 2014. Obama, some Ukrainians interviewed argue, shouldn’t be afraid of standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially when it comes to a country whose citizens increasingly favor joining NATO.

“What Obama needs to do, he must risk more in his life,” said Yury Karamaneshta, who fled eastern Ukraine and now lives outside Kiev with his family. Over a meal of open-faced sandwiches and cake, the 35-year-old calls on Obama to “be brave, much more brave.”

Since the Ukraine-Russia crisis erupted, the Obama administration has committed more than $1.3 billion in foreign assistance to Ukraine, including training and equipment for its armed forces as well as humanitarian aid. Obama has also worked with counterparts in Europe to impose sanctions on Russia over its military action in Ukraine. However, Obama also has suggested that Ukraine is not a core interest of the United States—at least not the way it is for Russia.

There are divisions even within Ukrainian families (including Karamaneshta’s) on what more Obama should do. Many Ukrainians are sympathetic to Obama’s belief that sending weapons will dangerously escalate tensions with Russia.


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