By Susan Milligan
President Joe Biden wants to convey a clear and self-confirming message when he is in Europe this week on his first foreign trip: America, as you knew and mostly loved it, is back.
And while Biden clearly has work to do to rebuild relationships and mutual trust, a new Pew Research Center poll indicates he has a head start. The nonpartisan survey group found that the image of the United States since Biden’s election has rebounded dramatically from when Donald Trump was president, with strong majorities approving of Biden and several of his major policy initiatives.
More than 6 in 10 residents in each of the 16 countries surveyed said they have confidence in Biden to do the right thing on global affairs. When Pew compared data in the 12 countries where both Biden and Trump were ranked, the differences were dramatic: 75% at the beginning of Biden’s presidency said they had confidence in Biden compared to 17% who said the same about Trump in the waning days of his presidency. Eighty-three percent said they had no confidence in Trump then, compared to 22% who say that now about Biden.
The overall view of the United States among foreign nations studied has also recovered quickly and dramatically. At the end of Trump’s presidency, 63% had an unfavorable view of the United States, with 34% holding a positive view. Now that Biden is president, those numbers have virtually flipped, with 62% holding a favorable view of America and 36% having an unfavorable view.
Presidential transitions typically cause a change in foreigners’ views of the United States, Pew noted in its report. Former President Barack Obama, for example, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – somewhat to his chagrin, at the time – soon after taking office, a sign of how much the international community welcomed a change from George W. Bush, who feuded with allies over the Iraq War.
But the jump in approval with Biden’s election is particularly notable, Pew said, especially among the public in America’s close allies in Western Europe. The increase in confidence in the U.S. president jumped by 70 percentage points in Sweden and Belgium, 68 percentage points in Germany and the Netherlands, 63 percentage points in France and 59 percentage points in Italy.
In Great Britain, where Trump ally Boris Johnson remains prime minister, the approval of the U.S. president grew by 53 percentage points, with Biden having the confidence of 72% of Britons to do the right thing in world affairs, compared to 19% who felt that way about Trump.
American presidents don’t need foreign votes to get elected or even to win support for policy proposals at home. But a strong approval rating helps Biden claim the moral authority and leadership role to win backing for initiatives requiring support from the Group of Seven nations or NATO.
Strong support from industrialized democracies also empowers Biden when he lectures the world on the threat of autocratic rule and human rights abuses – topics he is expected to raise with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two men meet next week in Geneva.
Biden’s high ratings are closely tied to his personal characteristics, Pew found. Asked about Trump and Biden at the beginning of their respective presidencies, 77% said Biden was “well-qualified” compared to 16% who said that about Trump. Sixty-two percent call Biden a “string leader” compared to 46% who said that about Trump.
And Trump’s bombastic personality appeared to hurt him: 72% described the former president as “dangerous” while 14% say that about Biden, and 90% called Trump “arrogant” compared to 13% who assign that moniker to the current president.
Biden also gets high marks for his switch to a more multilateralist approach to world problems such as health and climate change. More than 8 in 10, for example, approve of Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris climate change accord and the World Health Organization.
There were signs, however, that the international community does not view the United States as the beacon of democracy the nation aspires to be. More than two-thirds say the United States is a reliable partner – but just 11% call America a “very” reliable partner, with 56% calling the U.S. “somewhat” reliable.
Just half of the foreign respondents said the American political system works somewhat (44%) or very (6%) well, while 42% say the American political system works not too well or not at all well. Those are weak numbers for a nation seeking to re-establish itself as a democratic icon, especially after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Fully 57% said American democracy used to be a good example for the world but is not anymore. That compared with 17% who still see the United States as a good example of democracy and 23% who say the nation has never been a good example for other countries to follow.
Biden, arriving in Great Britain on Wednesday, repeated his exhortation that the United States lead not “by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” The Pew report indicates Biden is well-positioned for the task – but that it will be a tough one to complete.