Europeans still support President Barack Obama, but are puzzled by his drop in domestic support. On a speaking tour this week of Germany and Netherlands, I found most people like Obama and think he represents a dramatic improvement over President George W. Bush. This impression is confirmed by a new Transatlantic Trends survey showing Obama with a 78 percent job approval among Europeans, down just five percentage points from last year.
From a European standpoint, President Obama by and large has been a stunning success. They understand he inherited an economic mess, but feel he has made good faith efforts to deal with problems and move the U.S. forward. They like the fact that he was able to enact health care reform and crack down on financial institutions, and that he has ended the combat mission in Iraq.
It is confusing for them to hear that Americans give the chief executive little credit for passing health care reform. Europeans long have criticized the lack of universal coverage in the United States and feel that it is a landmark achievement to move close to that goal.
They find the Tea Party even more difficult to understand. Recognizing that the bad economy and high unemployment have fueled public discontent, they worry that this anti-government movement will push the United States toward nativism and isolationism.
A number of Europeans I spoke with expressed concern that American public opinion is too fickle and wonder whether our political institutions have the capacity to address policy problems. They see our dysfunctional Congress and worry what happens when it contains more extreme elements in the future.
Most find it hard to take Sarah Palin very seriously as a political leader. They see her as someone who does not understand policy issues and exemplifies the worst elements in American civic discourse. They realize that the U.S. often does not choose the most intellectual leaders, but believe Palin is far below the threshold of leadership and competence.
They find laughable the conservative critique that Obama is a socialist. Since Europe still has real socialists, they do not understand how someone who disavowed the public option on health care, has followed the broad contours of Bush's anti-terrorism policy, and been slow to repeal Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays could even be considered liberal, let alone socialist.
Even among more conservative Europeans, there is the worry about the GOP leadership. They do not see Republican congressional leaders as exercising responsible leadership and feel that the party has gained strength over the past two years through a misinformation campaign based on false beliefs about Obama. They can't believe some Americans think Obama is Moslem and not born in the United States, given all the factual evidence to the contrary.
A trip to Europe reveals how far apart the U.S. and continent have become in their views of the American president. With nearly four in every five Europeans liking the job Obama has done, they are disbelieving of the rapid decline in Obama's political fortunes and the speed of the Republican comeback. It frightens them to see this tremendous volatility in American public opinion, and they wonder where the United States will turn after the November elections and how that will affect the future of the world.
Darrell M. West is Vice President of Governance Studies and Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new Brookings Institution Press book, Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy.