President Barack Obama will receive a far warmer response in the United Nations General Assembly hall today than his party is likely to get from U.S. voters in November’s mid-term elections.
“I am not sure there is any region where he is not popular,” Vanu Menon, Singapore’s ambassador to the UN, said in an interview. “It’s because the U.S. is seen to be engaging with the world, and the response is positive even if there is not always agreement.”
While the sluggish U.S. economy has cut into Obama’s popularity at home, and may lead to loss of the Democratic majority in one or both houses of Congress, he remains admired overseas and at UN headquarters in New York. Opinions of the U.S. also are more positive than under President George W. Bush, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
Pew’s 22-nation survey found in June that Obama “remains popular in most parts of the world,” including approval ratings of 73 percent in France, 66 percent in India and Japan, 58 percent in China and 57 percent in Russia. Exceptions are Arab and Muslim nations, where Obama’s popularity has fallen since he took office.
At home, a Gallup survey taken Sept. 19-21 put Obama’s approval rating at 43 percent. That is near the worst mark of his presidency and is down from a high of 66 percent in April 2009. Republicans hold a 3 percentage-point advantage over Democrats in the RealClearPolitics average of recent congressional vote polling data.
UN diplomats credit Obama’s standing to a reversal of Bush policies that they say reflected skepticism about the UN. Bush appointed an ambassador, John Bolton, who faulted the world body for inaction and hostility to U.S. interests.
Abortion, Nuclear Threat
The U.S. under Obama joined the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, supported a General Assembly declaration urging the decriminalization of homosexuality and gave government funds to a UN agency that offers abortion counseling. Obama also backed a treaty to regulate the trade in conventional weapons and agreed to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“We ended the needless U.S. isolation on a range of issues,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. “We changed and scrapped a number of outdated positions, particularly on issues related to women and population, lesbians and gays, disabilities.”
Rice said the approach paid dividends in UN Security Council resolutions tightening sanctions against North Korea and Iran that are intended to block their development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Bolton has challenged Obama’s record on Iran and North Korea, saying in an article for the Oct. 4 issue of National Review that the sanctions haven’t worked.
“In matters most directly threatening to America and its allies, the nuclear-weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, the UN has performed no better than it did during the Bush administration,” Bolton wrote. “Obama’s UN strategy regarding Iran and North Korea has not been much different from Bush’s in his last two years. Neither has been successful.”
Obama sent a further signal of his UN support yesterday with his participation in a meeting of leaders on poverty and hunger-reduction aims.
“President Obama has the conviction that the UN is deeply flawed, but he understands that it has unique capabilities and unparalleled international legitimacy,” Stewart Patrick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said in an interview. “He’s trying to give critics a little less ammunition by taking away U.S. unilateralism as an excuse.”
Obama’s speech today will focus on “our efforts to restart the global economy, to combat al-Qaeda, to advance the cause of non-proliferation and to pursue Middle East peace,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Sept. 20.
The global perception gap also shows up among investors. While 77 percent of U.S. investors said Obama is anti-business and expressed pessimism about his policies, only 50 percent of those questioned outside the U.S. held the same views, according to a Bloomberg News survey released Sept. 21.
At the UN, Obama “will get a good reception because the shift in U.S. policies is continuing,” Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt’s ambassador, said in an interview. “Everybody feels it.”
Yet Egyptians reflect Muslim disappointment in Obama, who used a Cairo speech to make a direct appeal last year to the Islamic world. The Pew poll found that the U.S. favorability rating in Egypt fell to 17 percent from 27 percent last year. Declines were also reported in surveys limited to Muslims in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria.
A Zogby International poll conducted by Shibley Telhami, professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland in College Park, last month said only 16 percent of Arabs in six nations expressed optimism about U.S. policy on the Middle East, compared to 51 percent last year.
“When we asked what they disliked most, 61 percent said the Arab-Israeli issue,” Telhami said in an interview.
Obama is attempting to ease that tension by mediating direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that resumed this month.
“I don’t think we are going to spend a lot of time worrying about the ups and downs of polls here or abroad,” Rice said. “The president is governing in a fashion that is aimed at supporting and advancing America’s interests. That won’t always satisfy every country and constituency around the world, nor is it intended to.”