The Charleston Gazette is a member of the Politico Network.
When presidential candidate Barack Obama swept into Eur...
When presidential candidate Barack Obama swept into Europe in 2008, television screens showed massive, adoring crowds. But the latest TV images from abroad are far more ominous: mobs in the Muslim world besieging U.S. embassies, torching American flags and even burning Obama himself in effigy.
The two sets of images show a gap between aspirations and reality: A president who is popular overseas has not managed to radically transform America's standing in the world through the illuminating force of his biography or personality.
For many Democrats, the promise Obama held in that regard was part of his appeal in 2008 -- a rejection of the jingoism of George W. Bush's presidency in favor of a cosmopolitan newcomer. And Obama himself fueled those hopes.
"I truly believe that the day I'm inaugurated, not only does the country look at itself differently, but the world looks at America differently," Obama told New Hampshire Public Radio in 2007. "If I'm reaching out to the Muslim world, they understand that I've lived in a Muslim country and, I may be a Christian, but I also can understand their point of view. ... I'm intimately concerned with what happens in these countries and the cultures and the perspectives that these folks have, and those are powerful tools to be able to reach out to the world."
As Obama prepares to stand for reelection, the surge in good feeling toward the U.S. that he ushered in has dimmed in much of the world. And evidence is scant that his popularity has advanced U.S. interests with America's allies or its adversaries in a tangible way.
Obama aides say the frightening images from the Middle East and elsewhere don't tell the whole story. In fact, polls show America's standing abroad substantially improved from Bush's final year in office, when much of the world recoiled from his cowboy image. Obama supporters also say the anti-American protests in the past week or so have been modest in size compared with the massive numbers who took to the streets in many of those same countries during the Arab Spring democracy movement.
But for conservatives, it's a "told you so" moment, proving -- as they believed all along -- the notion that Obama could remake America's image through the power of his personality was a fantasy.
"There was rapturous narcissism," said Kori Schake, a senior foreign and defense policy adviser to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential bid. "It was rapturously self-regarding to think that the change from President Bush to Obama would, all by itself, improve our standing. ... Obama did improve American standing in the world by getting elected, and that disappeared as the result of his policies."
A foreign policy adviser to current GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Mitchell Reiss, said Obama's foreign policy has suffered from a lack of any coherent organizing principle.
"Essentially, American foreign policy was personalized," said Reiss, a State Department official in the Bush administration. "I think what we're finding now is that you actually need policy in order to promote American interests and values around the world. ... You can't just simply rely on your own estimation of your own magical personality."
While the U.S. is more popular in many places than it was when Bush left office, American standing never got a huge boost in some critical regions, such as the Mideast. And in two strategically pivotal nations, Pakistan and Egypt, sentiment toward the U.S. is more hostile than it was under Bush -- an anger experts attribute to Obama's aggressive campaign of drone strikes against terror suspects and tumult related to the Arab Spring democracy movement.
Still, Obama's defenders say the president has largely delivered on his pledge to improve America's reputation abroad -- even if the bloom is off the Obama rose a bit.
"Certainly, there were high expectations and probably impossible expectations as he came into office," said P.J. Crowley, who served as State Department spokesman for most of Obama's first term. "The world has been and remains attracted by his biography and while he has, I think, stabilized the situation, ultimately, it's about policies. And U.S. policies, even despite what his administration has tried to do, remain deeply unpopular in various parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East."
Obama campaign foreign policy adviser Colin Kahl told POLITICO the president has done "pretty well" carrying out his foreign policy promises to mend America's relationships with other nations.
"We've reinvigorated America's image around the world. There was a sense [under Bush] that especially with our closest allies in Europe and Asia, we were not in a good place. We had really alienated a lot of the countries that we rely on most to deal with global problems," Kahl said. He noted that a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll taken earlier this year shows U.S. approval ratings 20 percent higher in Europe than during the final year of the Bush administration.
During Obama's campaign and from the beginning of his presidency, he tried to use his personal narrative as a way to reset global relations, including with the Muslim world.
In June 2009, President Obama used his highly anticipated Cairo address to call for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," and invoked his childhood spent in Indonesia as a way to explain why Muslims could trust him.
"I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that the partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't," he said.
Obama advisers acknowledge that anti-American sentiment still prevails in many Muslim countries, but point out the U.S. is popular in some places, like Indonesia. Even in Libya, site of the deadly consulate attack last week, there's a lot of pro-American sentiment because of the U.S. role in ousting longtime leader Muammar Qadhafi, Obama aides said.
"We have a long history in this part of the world, and there's a lot of baggage," Kahl said. Improvements there "are going to take a while, no matter who the president is. The Arab Spring made the situation even more complicated."
Obama's 2008 campaign also fueled perceptions that Obama himself -- through the sheer power of his personality or his personal narrative or both -- could dramatically change U.S. relations with foreign leaders. Obama sparked criticism in a series of 2007 Democratic primary debates when he said he'd meet the leaders of U.S. nemeses such as Iran, North Korea and Venezuela without preconditions.
"I would," he said. "And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration -- is ridiculous."
Advisers cultivated the sense that Obama, because of his unusual parentage, his international upbringing and his status as America's first black president, would help bend the will of foreign nations.
"If must say if I were an Iranian leader, I would not know exactly how to deal with a Barack Obama," Obama adviser Greg Craig said at a forum during the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver. "That would be somebody that would be hard to demonize. He'd be hard to put in a box for the Iranian people. .... In that comparative advantage, we come out in good shape to engage that negotiation or discussion."
But Obama's global appeal actually carried a downside as well as an upside.
"He has improved the U.S. standing in much of the world, but his own personal popularity and biography has been both a blessing and a curse," said James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Everyone looked up to him and expected him to transform American foreign policy and solve issues that have festered for years and decades -- problems that may not actually be fixable."
The face-to-face talks with leaders of rogue nations that Obama said he'd be open to have never come to pass. He did make new overtures to Iran and try to revive talks with North Korea. There have been no big breakthroughs in those discussions, but Obama aides say their diplomatic efforts with Iran were crucial to building international support for much tougher sanctions.
"That was partly, but not entirely, due to the fact that Obama cut a very different course in the world than George W. Bush," said Lindsay, who worked on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. "The fact that Obama was seen as the new sheriff in town, bringing a new tone and attitude to American foreign policy, has made it easier for us to act on a couple of fronts."
The peak of Obama fever globally may have come in October 2009, when the president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize based almost entirely on the hope he inspired, rather than on any particular achievement. Even Obama said he felt the accolade was undeserved.
"They said Obama's celebrity status would get us better results. How many Guantanamo prisoners were placed in Europe? A handful," said Peter Feaver, a Duke political science professor who served as a National Security Council aide under Bush and Clinton. "All it really delivered was a Nobel Prize."
Obama does have significant achievements in America's dealings overseas. He ordered a U.S. military operation that killed Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. An intense campaign of drone strikes has wiped out many leaders of anti-American terrorist groups in South Asia and Africa. And, perhaps of greatest interest to American voters, he withdrew U.S. troops from the unpopular war in Iraq.
Obama aides note that opposition to the Iraq War was the animating force behind at least the early stages of Obama's first campaign for president and is likely of far greater consequence to American voters than the standing of the U.S. in foreign opinion polls or diplomatic circles.
"Any look at our foreign policy promises and record that omits progress against Al Qaeda and ending the war in Iraq is sorely lacking," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Americans seem pretty satisfied with Obama's leadership on foreign policy. In an unusual reversal of the parties' typical positions, voters give Obama the edge over Romney on the issue by margins ranging from the single digits all the way up to 15 percent. One poll taken after the recent violence broke out shows confidence dipping in Obama's foreign policy; another does not.
Romney advisers say Obama has convinced voters that his foreign policy record should be judged solely by the successful mission to take out bin Laden and the aggressive campaign of drone strikes.
"What I think the administration has done and continues to try to do is to portray its counterterrorism policy success as foreign policy success," Reiss said. "Counterterrorism policy, while important, is not an organizing principle for American foreign policy."
One of the most glaring broken promises of Obama's presidency is the collapse of his plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects. There's also the utter absence of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace despite significant investment of time and effort by Obama and his administration.
And The White House failed to persuade Iraqi leaders to allow a stay-behind force of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq at the end of last year.
In Afghanistan, where Obama presided over a near-tripling of U.S. forces, he's promising to wind down U.S. involvement by 2014. However, there are signs of trouble: U.S. and Afghan leaders are clashing over how to handle prisoners there. The U.S. just suspended joint operations with Afghan troops because of a spate of incidents in which Afghans turned their weapons on the Americans.
Still, it's unclear how much of a political liability any of those failures are at home. Romney talks about many of them on the campaign trail, but it's unclear what he would have done differently.
Obama's record in leader-to-leader diplomacy is also mixed. He's built close relationships with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Mevedev when he served as president.
But Obama struggled to connect with former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And "the tension between Obama and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is palpable," said Crowley, now a professor at George Washington University.
The consensus-building approach Obama has pursued internationally did help drive Qadhafi from office, albeit with France and the U.K. leading the push for action. International cooperation led to significantly tighter global sanctions on Iran, but the end goal of those sanctions -- persuading Tehran to abandon its nuclear program -- is still not in sight.
And the limits of international consensus have been on clear display in the United Nations' failure to act against the regime in Syria even as it brutalizes its people in ways strikingly similar to the violence that prompted intervention in Libya. Despite Obama's entreaties, Russia and China have continued to block a strong Security Council resolution against the actions of Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad.
"To the extent people in the Obama orbit believed his personality would have a transformative impact on really hard issues, they have been disappointed -- manifestly disappointed," Lindsay said. "Obama has discovered what presidents before him, Democratic and Republican, have discovered: the U.S. is immensely powerful, immensely influential, and still finds it hard to get its way, even with its friends."
Byron Tau contributed to this report.