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Obama's Global Popularity: More Challenges Ahead

04/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recent polls show that Obama's popularity has reached its lowest after one year in office.
Last year, President Obama soared into office as a universally beloved multicultural Superman who was expected to single-handedly save the world from a crippled economy and the disastrous effects of President Bush's reckless, arrogant, and shortsighted foreign policy.

According to recent polls on Obama's popularity, most around the world seem to believe that Obama might not be the optimal hero they expected; in fact, he might just be vulnerable and human after all. Despite losing his luster, hope remains that Obama can ultimately fulfill his promise of "change," provided people considerably lower their unrealistic initial expectations of him.

Currently, President Obama's approval rating is at 46 percent; dipping below the 50 percent for the first time. When he was elected nearly a year ago, America's first biracial President averaged a 64 percent approval rating and an overwhelming worldwide popularity, which stood in striking contrast to the astounding animosity felt toward his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Worldwide, Muslim communities lovingly embraced Obama as one of their own, due to his Kenyan roots, his Arabic first name, and his sophisticated rhetoric and tone that inspire mutual respect, partnership, and trust.

Yet, the harsh realities of the present include a paralyzing US economy in which 10 percent of Americans are unemployed, nearly 13 percent of homeowners are behind on their payments or in foreclosure, more than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month, and nearly $5 trillion has been wiped away from savings and pensions.

Globally, The US has entrenched itself in a seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan, with President Obama lately sending 30,000 more American soldiers there, bringing the total to nearly 100,000.

Furthermore, the US predatory drones used to eliminate high-level terrorist threats in Pakistan have mostly resulted in civilian deaths, thus drastically increasing anti-American sentiment in the volatile Central Asian region.

According to a recent Bookings Institute report, American drones kill 10 times as many civilians as terrorists or Taliban fighters.

In addition, 2400 Afghan civilians were killed in 2009 -- many of them by the Taliban -- representing a 14 percent increase in causalities.

Reasons Behind Decline

The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US unflinching commitment to Israel despite the latter's continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and the US support of corrupt Arab regimes all contribute to President Obama's popularity diminution.

Though initially showering Obama with standing ovations and We Love You's during his historic address to Muslims in Cairo, most Muslim countries have now lost more than 50 percent of their confidence in the President, according to the Pew Research Center.

We live in a fast-food, globalized environment with an insatiable demand for instant gratification and quick answers to issues; however, we must calmly step back and analyze Obama's current decline in popularity in light of the tremendous misfortune he inherited from the previous administration.

Obama assumed his presidency amid the US's worst recession in recent history. This was compounded by the criminal behavior of key financial players on Wall Street and corporate banks that encouraged massive speculative borrowing and high-risk lending practices.

This "economic Russian roulette" was further nurtured by the Republicans' blind and unwavering belief in the powers of a deregulated free-market enterprise. Additionally, President Bush's ultimately pointless military Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq cost the country three trillion dollars.

However, playing the "blame the Republicans" game is meritless to many Americans, since the Democrats not only hold the Presidency but also have control of the Congress.

Most citizens tend to be unfairly impatient, especially when they are without jobs and struggling to survive in a stagnant economy. Instead, they demanded quick, overnight results, hoping Obama would usher in a groundbreaking, populist regime that would change the corrupt and ineffectual status quo on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.

Unfortunately, President Obama's controversial $700 billion stimulus package, otherwise known derisively as the "bailout of the US financial system," rather cemented the disillusionment of many and confirmed that the Democrats, just like the Republicans, have more fidelity to Wall Street than to Main Street.

Instead of bailing out homeowners who are teetering on foreclosure, billions of dollars were injected to resuscitate those same reckless financial players, such as the insurance giant AIG and several investment banks, which helped nearly destroy the US economy in the first place.

In light of this economic disaster, Obama has also tried to usher in a sweeping health care reform that is wildly divisive and feared by conservatives as being too radical.

Signs of Progress

Yet, low poll figures, which are natural amid a recession, generally cannot ignore a number of successes that highlight some tangible signs of progress.

It was recently revealed the US economy's growth rate jumped 5.7 percent, the fastest pace in six years.

Furthermore, a conservative commentator, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently argued that "Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president ... The deep dysfunction of our politics may have produced public disdain, but it has also delivered record accomplishment."

Contrary to Republican allegations of increased taxes, more than a third of Obama's stimulus package was used for tax cuts, making these one of the largest in history.

Significant credits were used to assist in home buying, college tuition, energy conservation, greater access to the Internet, and support of green technology.

The White House also stepped up by approving a sweeping bill to overhaul the financial regulatory system and hopefully prevent future crises like the current one caused by the unregulated, fraudulent, and reckless behavior of Wall Street players.

Although Obama's popularity has dipped globally, his statistics are still hopeful when compared to the 2007-2008 numbers of President Bush.

During Bush's second term, 2 percent of Turks, 7 percent of Jordanians, 11 percent of Egyptians, 23 percent of Indonesians, and only 7 percent of Pakistanis expressed confidence in the Republican President.

Comparatively, a third of Jordanians and Turks reported to have confidence in the current President, whereas Egyptians came in at 42 percent and Indonesians the highest at 71 percent.

Unfortunately, Pakistan, the country whose alliance and trust the US currently needs the most, recorded only 13 percent confidence in Obama. Even that is an improvement over Bush, who scored a 9 percent confidence mark from Pakistanis.

In the unstable geopolitical climate of today, these polls point toward a strained but potential reconciliation between the US and Muslim communities, based on President Obama's promise to engage Muslims as partners and to end a "cycle of suspicion and discord" with them.

Obama has already been committed to his pledge by ordering the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Also, his inclusive and respectful rhetoric is a much needed and welcomed contrast to Bush's "Us vs. Them" mentality.

However, if Obama truly wishes "to seek a new beginning between the US and Muslims all around the world" as he promised in Cairo, then he will have to firmly confront Israel over its continued humiliation of the Palestinian people.

Obama needs to use the US leverage and clout to force Israel to abandon its settlement activity of the Occupied Territories.

Moreover, Obama has to ensure that his inherited war in Afghanistan, which he has claimed as his own, minimizes civilian casualties, affords the Afghan people autonomy and empowerment, and eventually leads to a sustainable government free of radicalized extremism.

Not a Superman

These goals unfortunately seem untenable and unrealistic, as that war continues to drag on without any viable, long-lasting solutions.

Furthermore, in the ongoing and seemingly endless War on Extremism, Obama must vigilantly ensure he treats Muslims both at home and abroad as potential partners and not perpetual suspects, as he did so recently by implementing more stringent airport security measures, which is tantamount to racial profiling, for the passengers coming from 14 nations, most of which have Muslim-dominated populations.

In the State of the Union Address, President Obama said, "We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment -- to start anew." Perhaps this global disenchantment with the President is ultimately beneficial for everyone, because it will force citizens worldwide to look at Obama from a new perspective in which he does not wear a halo.

He is not an invincible Superman impervious to pain; he is not a King Midas gifted with the ability to turn stone to gold; he is not a Messiah or a prophet; he cannot walk on water and he cannot fly.

He is just one man, one politician, working within a complex and inefficient system that depends on many conflicting personalities, and as such our expectations of him should be grounded.

He will never fulfill the impossible hopes that people placed on his shoulders or that he himself promised during his electoral campaign.

However, unlike his predecessor, he is a charismatic orator with an inclusive, multicultural vision that seeks partnerships with formerly alienated communities and attempts some semblance of progressive fiscal and health care reform.

President Obama will never reach those previous highs, because he needs time to fulfill his ambitious vision, and unfortunately that is a commodity he cannot afford right now, in a paralyzed economy desperate for instant results.

Originally published in Islam Online

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