Barack Obama is really president of the world

A remarkable phenomenon in the race leading up to US President Obama’s re-election for another four years was the tremendous support he gained around the world. In fact, it is likely that, if there were such a thing as President of the World, and Obama had been a candidate, he would have won it hands down against pretty much any opponent you can think of.

The Europeans gave the first inkling of his appeal by awarding him a Nobel Peace Prize within weeks of his 2008 victory. But that popularity has endured. Despite the fact that many of the promises that caught the Nobel Committee’s attention – the winding down of drone attacks in Central/South Asia, the closing of the Guantanamo prison camp – have not happened, Europeans still like him. Polls conducted for BBC News showed that 87 percent of Germans and 66 percent of the French have a positive view of Obama as compared to 4 percent and 5 percent respectively for his challenger, Governor Romney.

This support seemed to cut across the board, and was not confined to those at the lower socio-economic strata. The Economist magazine, whose readers tend to be affluent, reported that 75 percent of them supported the incumbent; the magazine itself, while normally business-friendly and anti-big-government, endorsed Obama.

In Latin America, apparently with the exception of Chile (whose trade-oriented elites thought the US economy would do better under Romneynomics) the sentiment was hugely in favour of Obama. Certainly for those nations with diasporas in the US, which worried about strong anti-immigrant statements by some Republicans, this made sense. This was reflected also in the fact that 71 percent of Latino voters (those of Mexican, Colombian, Brazilian, Argentinean etc. ancestry) did vote for Obama: a super-majority.

Africans, considering him a native son, also supported Obama strongly, although some were disappointed in what they considered lack of attention by him. Interestingly, in most African countries, as pointed out by a commentator on KQED, San Francisco’s Forum program on this topic, mixed-race people (Obama is half-black, half-white) are considered privileged, and yet that animosity did not hurt Obama’s popularity. Although the initial ardour in Kenya (home of many of Obama’s father’s relatives) had cooled down, he was still popular.

Barack Obama after winning the election. AFP

In North Africa and West Asia, there were mixed feelings about Obama. Former president George W Bush was disliked by Arabs according to global opinion polls, although in general the Arab/Persian Gulf elites prefer Republicans. The region gravitated to Obama, with the single exception of Israel. The latter was concerned about the impact of a second Obama term on their future defense ties (I don’t think Iran was included in any of the polls I read about, but that would almost certainly have been anti-Obama territory).

Israel and Pakistan are strange bedfellows in generally disliking Obama. In fact, these, and Chile, are the only three nations where polls showed Obama to be not so popular. Pakistan, of course, has seen a chorus of complaints that its sovereignty is under attack from American drones; the killing of Osama bin Laden did not go over well there, either.

In India, there was strong sentiment in favour of Obama. He got the rock-star treatment when he visited India, but strategic thinkers were concerned about his lack of interest in India, and embrace of China, even though a later “pivot to Asia” may have helped earn him some points. The Indian-American populace tends to vote Democratic because of a certain mentality of being oppressed immigrants, even though race is not the battleground any more in the US: in other issues, including the economy, they may well be natural Republicans.

In the rest of Asia, Japanese seemed to prefer Obama. In China, they were pre-occupied with their own change of guard, but Romney, with his promise to “on Day One”, declare China a currency manipulator, would have been less appealing than Obama.

So what is the secret sauce in all this? Perhaps it is a myth or halo or symbol that has grown around Obama that people are voting for: not necessarily the reality. The idea that a mere fifty years after segregation (the Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing unconditional voting rights and other forms of equality to non-whites, was only enacted in 1962) that a black man (okay, half-black) can be US President is a powerful endorsement of the idea of America: of a nation where everything is possible, and where there is social mobility.

It is that symbol, that America as the “shining City on the Hill”, that Obama adroitly leveraged in his favor. There is the appealing idea of infinite possibilities; the reality is a little more mundane. The Economist, in a special issue (Inequality and the World Economy: True Progressivism, 13 October 2012), suggested that social mobility has diminished, and inequality has increased in the US in the recent past, while the opposite has happened in other parts of the world.

There are lessons in all this: first, that ideas and ideals are powerful; second, that perception is often more important than reality; third, that despite America’s apparent decline, the appeal of its relatively free society still resonates.

What can politicians in India take away? First and foremost, that perception matters, and that media can make or unmake you. Fox News, a conservative outlet, wrote on 7 November about “Five ways the mainstream media tipped the scales in favour of Obama”. Therefore, given the reality of mainstream media in India, it is necessary to bypass it if a challenger is to have a chance.

Updated Date: Nov 12, 2012 04:47 AM

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