I started to get hungry on somewhere on the long train journey between Cologne and Baden Baden, and so I flagged down the man pushing a food cart down the aisle.
It became clear that his English was just a bit better than my German. This meant that we were not going to have a detailed conversation, but I communicated my wish for a cheese sandwich and he let me know the price. “Change, change, I need to find some change,” I muttered to myself, as I rummaged through my wallet. “Change!” he said, loudly, with big bright smile. “Change! Obama!” And he raised his hands over his head in a victory salute.
I grinned back at him. “Yes! Yes! Obama! Yay!” It was just a few months after the inauguration and I was still a little giddy. We beamed at each other for few minutes, and then he pushed his cart away.
As I munched my sandwich and watched the Rhine river unwind out the window, I reflected on how different that exchange was from similar conversations I had during the George W. Bush presidency, when international sentiment had soured. The Pew Global Attitudes Project tracked dramatic drops in US favorability ratings abroad during the Bush years – in Germany, for example, 78% of those polled had a favorable attitude towards the United States in 1999-2000, by 2006, the share had dropped to 30%. After President Obama’s election, in 2010, the figure rebounded to 63%. There were similar patterns of throughout the world, most pronounced in Western Europe, more muted in Asia and Latin America, where positive regard for the US was never as high to begin with. (As an aside, Muslim countries don’t fit this pattern at all – over the past ten years views on the US have been consistently and overwhelmingly negative.)
During the Bush administration, any political conversation I had abroad included, invariably, the phrase “your president,” delivered with withering contempt. I was always tempted to say that President Bush was never my president, since I did not vote for him.
But I never did. I’m a US citizen and the president is my president whether I voted for him or not. During Bush’s first term, I did allow myself to point out that he wasn’t actually elected, and only in office thanks to a partisan decision of the US Supreme Court. I may have also appended the phrase “among the Court’s darkest hours”. But after Bush’s re-election in 2004, I dropped all of that and simply said “I’m so, so, so sorry.”
Of course, not all anti-American sentiment is about our political leaders – some of it is also about the perceived behavior of the 300 million or so of us that are We the People. In 2005, when international political mistrust of the United States was at peaking, Pew surveyed people in Western countries about their opinions about Americans as Americans. Solid majorities in France, Germany, Great Britain and so on ascribed Americans with two positive characteristics: hardworking and inventive. On the other hand, similar majorities thought Americans were greedy. And although there’s certainly a stereotype about “the rude American abroad”, it turns out that most people in Western countries don’t buy it. Among all the Western countries surveyed, it was only a majority of Canadians that described Americans as rude (53%), followed by Russia at 48%. Just over a third of French respondents said Americans were rude, and just 12% of Germans.
I haven’t been out of the country since the Obama-shellacking midterm elections, and so I’m not sure if the midterm elections have changed conversations about US politics, or opinions on the American character. There aren’t any post-midterm figures available from Pew’s Global Attitudes Project yet, and in international newspapers the post-election commentary seems to have focused more on political strategy and less on what the election results say to the rest of the world about Americans.
Still, if I were to have that same encounter with that sandwich man on that German train today, I wonder if he’d still associate Obama with the word “change”.
And the next time I have a conversation about American politics overseas, I wonder if I’ll still be able to smile.