He has been hailed as one of the world’s most popular figures, a hope-and-change symbol cultivating an outsider’s image to repair his organization’s reputation and shape global attitudes.
That was Barack Obama in 2008. Now, the president is seeking to recapture some of that public affection by getting close to a leader who currently plays that role, Pope Francis.
Obama will meet with Francis at the Vatican today as the American leader struggles with declining influence at home and abroad. He’s also trying to gain favor with two of the pope’s main constituencies in the U.S.: the working poor and Hispanics.
Obama, 52, has been seeking allies in Europe this week for his push against Russian expansion, and at home he’s trying to rally support for reducing income inequality, expanding gay rights and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Francis, 77, is atop the list of the world’s most respected figures a year into his papacy, with an 85 percent favorability rating among American Catholics and almost 4 million followers on Twitter.
“The attendant media that will go with meeting one of the most admired figures today on Planet Earth has the potential to do nothing but help” Obama, said Jim Nicholson, who was U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush. “Not just with Catholics,” Nicholson said, “but with non-Catholics, who are also very fond of this pope.”
To be sure, the first black U.S. president and the first pope from the Americas disagree on significant social issues. Among them: gay marriage, abortion and birth control -- a topic in the headlines again this week when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments from Christian employers challenging a contraceptive mandate in Obama’s signature health-care law.
“But this pope has tried to move away from talking about those types of issues, sexual issues,” said John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio who has studied the relationship between religion and U.S. elections.
Francis has “tried to focus on economic issues,” and “that return to balance certainly fits with the president’s agenda.”
In November, the pope decried the growing global income gap, saying it was fueled by “trickle-down” theories of economics, and condemned the “idolatry of money.”
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” he wrote in an apostolic exhortation.
Yesterday, Francis accepted the resignation of a German bishop whose lavish spending on residential renovations became a national controversy and clashed with Francis’ approach.
Obama quoted Francis’ exhortation in a December speech on economic mobility, saying, “Across the developed world, inequality has increased. Some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length.”
Catholics’ role in U.S. politics is shifting with societal trends, especially the rising Hispanic population, according to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center.
While Catholics comprised one in four U.S. voters in 2012, their partisan preferences divided along ethnic lines, with 41 percent of white Catholics identifying as Democrats compared with 63 percent of Hispanic Catholics.
Hispanics make up about one-third of U.S. Catholics, a share that’s on track to grow. Hispanics comprised 47 percent of Catholics under age 40, compared with just 16 percent of Catholics age 65 and older.
The relationship between popes and U.S. presidents dates to the start of the republic, when Pius VI asked George Washington, via Benjamin Franklin, if it was all right to name a bishop to the new country. He was told that it was.
After a long stretch of anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S., several 20th century presidents considered full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Still, it didn’t happen until 1984, under President Ronald Reagan. Reagan and Pope John Paul II forged a powerful bond against communism.
It’s not clear if Obama can create a modern-day version of that alliance with the first Latin American pope, who made headlines from the start for riding the bus, hugging a severely deformed man and taking a more inclusive approach toward gays.
Green said Obama’s relationship with U.S. Catholics tends to break into subgroups: “Traditional” white Catholics generally don’t support him; “progressive” whites reward him for his passage of the Affordable Care Act and campaign for income equality; and Hispanics, some of whom are frustrated over the lack of progress on immigration legislation.
Linking himself with the Argentina-born Francis probably helps Obama across all three groups, Green said, considering that some of the president’s Republican critics in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, are Catholics.
“When their leader speaks about the poor and reducing income inequality, that can have an impact,” Green said of those lawmakers and the pope.
A Pew survey this month found 85 percent of American Catholics and two-thirds of adults had favorable views of Francis at his one-year mark, with 68 percent of U.S. Catholics saying the pope represents change for the better in the church.
That gives Obama “an opportunity to bolster his popularity and show he works with popular people who are admired around the world and not just argues with unpopular people,” Green said.
Obama met Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2009, when Obama’s job-approval rating was 58 percent in polling by Gallup, compared with 44 percent now. Benedict’s level of popularity never approached that of Francis now.
Francis cultivates “feelings of inclusion rather than exclusion,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Catholic who is the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.
“We as a party are committed to helping struggling people and being sensitive to the needs of the poor, and I think the pontiff’s message has been very pointed in those areas,” he said.
As was true with Obama, Francis’s followers will be watching to see how effective he is at making the changes that many Catholics are seeking. After a year on the job, Pew found, 54 percent of Catholics gave the pope excellent or good marks for handling the sexual abuse crisis in the church.
Pew also found an appetite for other changes, with 77 percent of U.S. Catholics in a February survey saying the church should allow birth control, 72 percent saying priests should be able to marry, 68 saying women should be able to be priests and half saying the church should recognize gay marriages.