Viewing President Obama's public opinion is increasingly complex. Though Obama's a focal point to unite behind, his popularity isn’t a uniform image. It’s more like a kaleidoscope - colorful, distorted, dynamic, full of patterns, changing as it turns.
People have begun to question whether Obama can actually pass health care, right the economy (by spending too much or too little, depending on who you ask), or close Guantánamo, let alone do all three at once. Approval of his policies is falling and weighing down Obama’s personal approval.
His average on RealClearPolitics peaked at 65% in February and still hovers in the high 50’s, but his disapproval ran from 20% to 36% over the same period. Democrats and Republicans are static; Independents who were waiting to give Obama a chance are getting worried. Losing them would be devastating because Obama is having trouble passing his ambitious agenda.
Against the American backdrop stands world public opinion, crucial in the global age.
At first glance of the newest WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, President Obama is riding high around the world, topping all other leaders polled at 61%. Re-energizing Europe is an important feat, but twist the kaleidoscope and red mixes with the blue. Obama's 90% approval in Europe, East Asia, and Africa predictably bolsters the low 40's and 30’s in Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Russia, Palestine, and Pakistan, where America has more than friendship at stake.
Nor can Somalia or Sudan be forgotten, two Islamic states with no hope at all in the global community.
But Palestine and Pakistan are the linchpins of Obama's popularity with Muslims, and failure in these regions will plummet his status in the Muslim world. Unfortunately the actions he's already taken are dangerously contradictory. The WorldPublicOpinion.org poll occurred before his speech in Cairo, but likely has minimal effect.
3% of Palestinians expressed a lot or some confidence in America in 2008. The good news is that 63% of the 79% who expressed no confidence shifted to little confidence in 2009, pushing the latter category into some confidence and yielding a 33% approval rating for Obama overall. However, the 1% who had a lot of confidence in 2008 have only increased to 2%. Those with some confidence could easily lose it.
Meanwhile only 6% of Israelis view President Obama as pro-Israeli according to a Jerusalem Post poll. He’s managed to irritate both Palestinians and Israelis.
Palestinians chafe when Obama mentions his non-debatable bond with Israel every time he speaks about Palestine. They get it. They see him surrounded by the Israeli lobby, high profile proponents like Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, James Steinberg, Dennis Ross, and no Muslims of equal stature. His fixation on settlements has come off trite and support for Israel and Palestine remains in favor of Israel.
Cairo wouldn’t have changed much. A two-state solution is now standard and recognizing Palestinian suffering was more necessary than bold. Obama skirted the blockade of Gaza, deploring the humanitarian crisis while ignoring the cause. Change would have been touring the Palestinian territories.
Besides perceiving weakness on Iran, Israelis believe, somewhat irrationally, that Obama's ganging up on Israel. They were already scared that Obama will concede too much to Palestinians when Cairo plunged his popularity. But Obama hasn’t promised that much, only a Palestine without Jerusalem and maybe an army. Israel’s primal fear is being displaced from the top, while Palestinians worry that Obama will abandon them like everyone else has.
Neither side believes his promises to the other are sincere yet his reputation still takes damage, and that’s all Obama has in the Middle East. His window is smallest in Palestine.
While experiencing a similar positive shift as in Palestine, Obama suffers his highest “no confidence” rating in Pakistan at 41%. Islamabad’s pattern corresponds to the 80% approval Obama holds in India; Pakistanis believe Obama abandoned them. Pronouncing Pakistan correctly is nice and an aid bill is appreciated, but negatives are outpacing the positives.
After claiming he’ll pressure India, Obama left Kashmir out of his Cairo speech and later claimed the dispute should be resolved by Pakistan and India - without American "dictating." But Pakistan needs American leverage because it has none to negotiate with. Pakistanis have come to empathize with Palestinians as they watch Indian lobbyists spread their tentacles across Washington D.C.
Pakistanis are tired of being told that India isn’t a threat when they believe its intelligence agency, RAW, is stoking tensions in Balochistan province and Afghanistan. They lament that Obama has escalated the war next door and wonder why he can’t see its obvious futility. The parade of American officials through Islamabad is another act wearing dangerously thin.
Drones are an afterthought compared to such concerns.
President Obama’s problem with Pakistan in particular isn’t failing to act, but already making wrong moves spurred by extreme pressure to do everything, everywhere. He’s still on top of the world, but only until he spins around to the bottom. Reality begins to emerge when they swirl together.
George Bush did too little, too late for Muslims; Obama is trying to do too much at once. Change and hope have a built-in dark side that can turn Obama into his own worst enemy. Declaring the future will be different then leaving problems unresolved is his common weakness at home and wherever disapproval peaks.
Obama can pursue one free, immediate strategy to placate his opposition and maintain the high support he has. In fact, this strategy cannot be bought for any price: confidence without overconfidence. Lower expectations, promise and deliver moderate progress instead of chasing grand visions that collapse under their own weight.
President Obama simply has too many problems to solve at once. Distraction is unavoidable, but he has a little Icarus in him. Staying grounded could be more productive than soaring.