Election 2020

Don’t Expect a Biden Win to Boost U.S. Favorability

Obama won hearts all over the world, but people have been burned twice now.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro
Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at an anti-U.S. march in Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 3, 2019. Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

When Barack Obama won a landslide victory over John McCain in 2008 to become U.S. president, it was a boon for America’s global image. According to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes poll, after years of falling under President George W. Bush, U.S. favorability ratings leaped back up to pre-Bush levels in much of the world, especially Western Europe and Latin America. In Germany, for instance, the favorability figure was 31 percent in 2008 and 64 percent in 2009; in Mexico, it was 47 percent in 2008 and 69 percent in 2009. (In some countries, such as Turkey and Russia, U.S. favorability remained flat or slightly fell.) Trust in the U.S. president himself to “do the right thing” in global affairs also leapt massively, often by 60 or 70 points.

Donald Trump’s presidency has seen U.S. favorability ratings—and trust in the president—plummet globally to levels even lower than Bush’s. Between the end of Obama’s presidency and Trump’s inauguration, U.S. favorability ratings dropped by an average of 15 percentage points, and trust in the U.S. president by 42 percentage points. Just 22 percent of the world had confidence in Trump to do the right thing. The sole exceptions were Israel and Russia—and, over time, India, where Trump’s favorability grew. The figures plummeted even further in 2020 as a result of America’s catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus under Trump.

Trust in Joe Biden himself if he takes office will doubtless be higher in most of the world. But U.S. favorability ratings are unlikely to see a boost on par with that seen after Obama’s election for several reasons. For one, this is the second time around. Bush might have been seen as an aberration, but Trump can’t be. The narrowness (in the Electoral College) of his defeat will only reinforce that image; fears that either Trump himself or a possibly even worse successor will return in 2024 or 2028 will remain. And while Biden might project normality and reassurance, his story doesn’t have the resonance that that of the first African American president did—a symbolic role so powerful that it won Obama the Nobel Peace Prize essentially just for his presidential victory. With the U.S.-China cold war taking shape, too, attitudes toward both superpowers are likely to sharpen—although a hugely unpopular Chinese President Xi Jinping still managed to poll above Trump in the global popularity contest.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer