Am I Selling Americans Short Re: The Obama Speech?

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JULY 24, 2008

Am I Selling Americans Short Re: The Obama Speech?

Related: A
Slideshow from Barack Obama's trip abroad

My friends at the Economist, who always seem to cringe when I riff on the parochialism of the average American--have taken me to task for suggesting that the post-nationalist vibes from Obama's Berlin speech might not go down so well in Ohio:

It has been a bad eight years for Atlanticists, when many out there now assume European and American distaste for each other, and that European affection for an American must be zero-sum—that it will cost him an equal amount of affection at home. Or that an American's pride in his country is similarly zero-sum, costing him among Europeans. I don't think this image costs Mr Obama, on net. It is truly a churlish, and in my opinion rare, American who actually takes pride when an American president is protested, jeered and hissed at abroad.

Then, in a particularly low blow, the Economist-blogger introduces some numbers:

But since Mr Scheiber and I have opposite gut feelings about this, some data would be helpful. From Pew:

More than seven-in-ten Americans (71%) say that the United States is less respected by other countries these days, up from 65% in August 2006.

For the first time since Pew began asking this question in 2004, a majority of Americans now sees the loss of international respect for the United States as a major problem. The percentage of Americans saying the loss of international respect is a major problem has risen from 43% in 2005 to 48% in 2006 and 56% currently.

The most recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted May 21-25 among 1,505 adults, finds that majorities of Democrats (81%), independents (72%) and Republicans (60%) believe that the United States has lost global respect in recent years.

In particular, Republican opinion about international respect for America has shifted substantially over the past two years. A clear majority of Republicans (60%) now say the nation is less respected in the international community, an increase of 12 points since August 2006. Moreover, 43% of Republicans say the loss of global respect represents a major problem, compared with just 26% two years ago.

Fair enough. It's unquestionably true that most Americans want the rest of the world to think better of them. On the other hand, it's also true that, if asked whether they'd vote for a man whose father was Kenyan, who lived in Indonesia as a child, and who seems more popular in Germany than in rural Pennsylvania, a majority would probably say no. The second question is highly-selective about the information it includes and generally biased in the extreme. But it's the kind of question the GOP wants to put before voters this fall. In analyzing the Berlin appearance, I think you have to ask (among other things) whether it shifts the discussion--and voters' impressions--toward the first point or the second. My concern is that it shifts it toward the second.

--Noam Scheiber

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