Will the Obama bounce last?


BRUSSELS, Belgium — It’s unquestionably a “bounce” — up to an “almost stratospheric” height, according to one transatlantic expert. But is Barack Obama's popularity in Europe also a bubble, destined to burst?

That’s the logical question when looking at new figures released last week by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and the Italian Compagnia di San Paolo in their annual Transatlantic Trends survey. Graphs comparing the approval ratings of presidents George W. Bush in 2008 and Barack Obama in 2009 evoke the trajectory of a pogo stick: BAM! 12 percent for Bush in Germany. BOING! 92 percent for Obama. BAM! 11 percent for Bush in France. BOING! 88 percent for Obama. Overall, the positive reaction to the U.S. president has quadrupled from when the White House changed hands to when the survey was conducted in June.

The gap was the largest ever seen in any category in the report’s eight-year history and shocked even the most optimistic Obama supporters, said Ron Asmus, director of GMF’s Brussels office. “No one thought this kind of bounce was possible,” he marveled. “People were so pessimistic after Bush and said ‘okay, 10, 20 percent would be good.’ But instead you got 60, 70 points. These things don’t happen but once a century!” The enthusiasm of the 12,000 European respondents is evident also at the leadership level. A day after Transatlantic Trends was released, European Union Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas was asked at a news conference whether he was hopeful the U.S. would be willing to pay its fair share to help developing nations fund climate change initiatives.

Dimas’ answer made one suspect an earpiece and wire connected to a White House scriptwriter. “The U.S. and this administration [are] fully committed to combating climate change and reducing emissions,” he told reporters. He went on to describe the current U.S. congressional process for the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill. The commissioner also mentioned having faced a “wall” and “very difficult times” with the Bush administration.

“The effort [members of the Obama administration] have committed to is really a sea change in comparison to the previous administration. And so we really appreciate what President Obama and his administration are doing,” Dimas said.

But while he’s scoring greenie points with the European Commission for now, Obama isn’t likely to be able to do that on most foreign policy issues. If that comes as a disappointment to both sides, it shouldn’t be a surprise. While the president personally has the support of three out of four Europeans, about the same proportion (77 percent) disapproves of sending more combat troops to Afghanistan, a current priority of his administration.

“We spent the better part of the last eight years deluding ourselves that the real issue between America and Europe was George Bush and that ‘if only, if only…’,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, executive director of the Transatlantic Institute, a Brussels think tank. “So now we’ve got the perfect anti-thesis of George Bush. … It’s like the perfect match. But the policy issues that underlie the differences between America and Europe transcend the president.”

Ottolenghi said this is already evident in the way European governments have responded to Obama's calls for help on both Afghanistan, where few troops have materialized to bolster the American surge, and on Guantanamo. Europe wanted the detention camp shut down; Obama shut it down. But EU nations have been reluctant to accommodate his request for help re-settling the camp's occupants.

But it’s potential transatlantic discord on Iran that troubles Ottolenghi. Having authored a new book called “Under a Mushroom Cloud” in which he warns European governments against inaction on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Ottolenghi worries about Europe's enduring patience with Tehran. Iran continues to reject negotiation over its nuclear program, even as it agreed this week to meet world powers Oct. 1 with the aim of promoting its own proposals for ending the standoff.

Ottolenghi is among those Europeans who want to be tougher on Iran, and he’s skeptical that efforts to negotiate a downgrade of its nuclear capabilities will pan out. He thinks the disillusionment in the relationship will come from the American side, as the Obama administration would be ready to take stronger measures — not excluding a military strike on Iranian sites — before Europe would consider it. In fact, almost half of European Transatlantic Trends respondents would not consider military action at any point — 48 percent said military force should be ruled out when it comes to Iran. Forty-seven percent of Americans, on the other hand, said they would keep the option on the table, as the Obama administration has done.

Ottolenghi said this timeline depends not only on how close Iran is believed to be to creating a nuclear bomb, but also on how close it appears to be to fortifying its nuclear installations against any possible attack on them.

To get Europe behind his policies, he said Obama should capitalize quickly on his popularity to speak directly to European publics and try to influence policymakers that way.

“The point is,” he said, “on some issues, even with a young liberal senator from Illinois who sometimes speaks more like a German Social Democrat, his popularity alone will not paper over the differences.”

Asmus thinks the bounce has some staying power, and that its height — plus recent history — gives the U.S. even more time to figure out what to do.

“Both sides know and feel guilty about the last couple of years and want to make this work,” he said. “But we need to succeed. We need to succeed to show ourselves, to show our publics that this isn’t all just talk, that America and Europe can make a difference when they work together.”