You’re reading an excerpt from the Today’s WorldView newsletter. Sign up to get the rest, including news from around the globe, interesting ideas and opinions to know, sent to your inbox every weekday.
Former presidents generally try to avoid overshadowing current presidents. So when President Barack Obama traveled to COP26, the United Nations climate summit being held in Glasgow, Scotland, he made sure to do so a week after world leaders had attended, to introduce himself as a “private citizen” and to repeatedly praise the efforts of his former White House colleague, President Biden, to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
As The Post’s Dan Zak reports from Glasgow, Obama described himself as a “hype man” for other U.S. officials. “I am John Kerry’s DJ Khaled,” he said at a private event Monday, referring respectively to the U.S. diplomat and climate envoy and the ubiquitous record producer.
But Obama felt less like an opening act and more like a headliner. Greeted like a head of state, Obama drew a capacity crowd for his speech, with many observers gushing over his remarks and some describing him as the most popular leader at the entire two-week event. An article in the local Scotsman newspaper said the 44th president had “sprinkled some stardust over Glasgow” and that it may be the “inspirational jolt it needs.”
Even with a week between them, that international star power that Obama brought to Glasgow cut a stark contrast with Biden. The current president was generally well-received, but the most intense media coverage he received was for allegedly dozing off during the world leader segment of speeches on the first full day of COP26.
Before Obama spoke, some observers suggested that Biden was simply repeating an old message. Last week, French television host Yann Barthès contrasted Biden’s 2021 speech with remarks made by Obama at the COP21, the U.N. climate summit in 2015 that led to the Paris agreement. Noting the similar language, Barthès asked: Was there a sense of deja vu?
For Biden, Obama’s enduring legacy on the world stage is both a blessing and a curse. Few recent American leaders have been viewed as positively as Obama outside of U.S. borders — and Biden benefits from his own role as vice president in this globally popular administration. However, Biden’s administration not only has to live up to Obama’s successes but also convince the world to look past his failures.
Pew Research Center has been tracking views of the United States among selected countries since 2000, polling thousands of people around the world to give a barometer of global support for U.S. presidents and their policies.
Positive views of Obama were overwhelming as he entered office in 2009, a stark contrast to the favorability of President George W. Bush by the end of his second term. In key U.S. allies like Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan, roughly 9 out of 10 people that year said they trusted the U.S. president to “do the right thing” on global affairs.
Biden did not garner quite the same overwhelming support that Obama had; 93 percent of Germans said they had confidence in Obama in 2009, compared with 78 percent who said the same of Biden in 2021. Similar gaps were seen in other nations.
Laura Silver, a senior researcher with Pew, said it was hard to make a direct comparison between Obama’s and Biden’s global popularity, noting that they had only gathered data on Biden once, in the spring.
“Both President Obama and President Biden entered office to widespread confidence, particularly in comparison to President Bush and President Trump,” Silver said via email.
But Biden’s global approval numbers seem unlikely to have ticked up since then; the Pew survey was conducted before international events including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and COP26.
Biden must also deal with the legacy of Trump. Views of U.S. leadership sunk to a nadir after Trump took office in 2017, with confidence in him setting or matching record lows in nearly all countries polled. Biden has easily surpassed these lows, in some cases improving on Trump’s confidence ratings by 70 percentage points.
Trump’s policies of “America First” put him at odds with both enemies and allies, with only a few like-minded leaders such as Brazilian populist Jair Bolsonaro consistently in his corner. In all but a handful of countries surveyed by Pew, Trump was given negative marks — ranking behind China’s Xi Jinping in global popularity. When Trump said in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2018 that his administration had “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” he drew audible laughter.
Many foreign officials were openly relieved at the prospect of Biden returning to the White House, suggesting that the former vice president and long-running Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair would represent a re-engagement with the world. “Welcome Back, America,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted last November after polls showed Biden with a commanding lead — a sentiment widely echoed on Twitter.
But others suggested that the experience of four years of Trump was scarring. Trump’s moves to pull the United States out of Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other groups and treaties raised deeper questions about the logic of dealing with an ever more polarized United States.
“However much Biden will overhaul U.S. politics, there is no insurance policy against a future return to Trumpism,” Carnegie Europe’s Rosa Balfour wrote in April.
During both of their speeches, Biden and Obama took aim at Trump specifically. Biden personally apologized for Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement. “I guess I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact that the United States and the last administration pulled out of the Paris accords and put us sort of behind the eight ball a little bit,” he said last week.
Obama concurred, suggesting Monday that Trump’s tenure was “four years of active hostility toward climate science, coming from the very top of our government.”
But Obama’s presence at COP26 — and perhaps, what appears to be his lingering popularity — also stood as a reminder of how the hope once projected onto him had not been met. After his speech, the former president had arranged to meet with youth delegates to discuss the future, but some blamed him for failing to follow through on earlier climate commitments.
Writing to Obama on Twitter, Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate said she was just 13 when wealthy nations including the United States promised to contribute $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer nations fight climate change — but that the United States and other countries had broken that promise. “Earth’s richest country does not contribute enough to life-saving funds,” Nakate wrote.
Obama wanted to meet youth activists, she added, but “we want action.” And if the current president wants to break the cycle of U.S. inaction on climate change in the eyes of the world, he may well have to step out of his old boss’s shadow.