The rest of the world fell as hard for Barack Obama as Americans did.
Back in 2008, the same qualities in the 47-year-old senator from Illinois that excited U.S. voters enthralled people around the globe. He was a fresh face and a compelling orator. He had spent his childhood in the Asia-Pacific, and his skin color alone made billions of people feel a connection with him. Perhaps most importantly, he was not George W. Bush, the president who invaded Iraq. Obama promised “hope” and “change” and people believed he could deliver—that he would end wars in Muslim countries, improve America’s standing on human rights, even alleviate global poverty. “Yes we can!” shouted The Age, an Australian newspaper, when he won office. Just months later, the rookie president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a nod more to his promise than to anything he had accomplished.
Obama’s overseas poll numbers were stratospheric in those early days. In countries like France and Germany, more than 90 percent of people surveyed by the Pew Research Center expressed confidence that Obama would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Even in some Middle Eastern countries, where U.S. presidents are rarely liked, nearly half of the populace had high expectations for Obama.
But peace did not arrive in Obama’s time. Obama’s standing in much of the world seemed to sag each year as he struggled to fulfill his promises. America, after all, still has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Middle East, revolutionary movements, including ones Obama overtly backed, have largely fizzled or bred violent anarchy. And Russia has ignored Obama’s warnings and asserted its influence in former Soviet states, sometimes at the point of a gun. Many saw in this picture a naive president and a United States of diminished standing. In Jordan, confidence in Obama fell from 31 percent in 2009 to 14 percent last year, the Pew surveys show. Some 86 percent of Britons expressed confidence in Obama in 2009; in 2015, it was 76 percent. Even in Kenya, where Obama has family ties, confidence in him stood at 80 percent in 2015, down from the mid-90s his first two years. The numbers don’t suggest deep antipathy toward Obama, but the heady infatuation that accompanied his arrival in office has changed into pervasive disappointment.
In an effort to capture this evolving view of Obama’s historic presidency, last month, POLITICO, in collaboration with the BBC World Service, visited three countries critical to Obama’s foreign policy—Cuba, Egypt and Ukraine. A radio documentary of our interviews with dozens of citizens in those and other nations airs this weekend. In each country, we discovered a palpable sense of discontent with the now gray-haired American leader. Many Ukrainians believe Obama is too meek in the face-off with Russia over their country. Egyptians fighting for democracy and human rights feel abandoned by Obama, who has had to balance their shifting desires with the U.S. national interest. And Cubans, while grateful to Obama for his efforts to open up their communist system, express impatience that he has not done more to speed up their slow—very slow—march toward prosperity.
Obama remains far more popular than Bush was at the end of his tenure. And the most recent Pew survey, which covers 2016, shows confidence in Obama to be on the upswing in some countries, including Britain, China and Spain. One possible reason is the rise of a Republican presidential candidate whose comments on everything from trade to terrorism have rattled the world. As POLITICO discovered in Cuba, Egypt and Ukraine, few things make people long for the extension of an Obama presidency more than the words “Donald Trump.”
Ahmed Elsayed and Nada Fayez AbouLeila attended Barack Obama’s famous speech in Cairo in 2009, an address the president hoped would help heal the rifts that opened between the U.S. and the Muslim world during the Bush years. Conservatives at home derided the speech as part of an “apology tour.” Muslims, however, praised Obama for using the address to promote human rights, democracy and religious tolerance, and for doing so in their backyard. His simple use of the Muslim greeting, “Assalam-u-aleikum” touched many hearts.
But things were very different back then, especially in Egypt. Few could have predicted that within two years, revolutionary movements would sweep this Arab country and several others, leaving behind civil wars, anarchy and terrorism. So on this dusty June day, as the 20-somethings watch the speech again on a laptop, the memories hurt.
“I think people who were listening to him were naive,” Elsayed says. “A president is just one player in the scene, so a president’s word isn’t always a valid one. Even if he has true good intentions, that doesn’t mean that he would be able to bring them to reality.”
Egypt is one of the clearest examples of Obama’s struggle to balance his idealism and his realism, and it seems he has disappointed Egyptians, especially the youth, at every step. Pew polls show that Egyptians’ confidence in Obama slipped from 42 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2014, the most recent year available.
Many Egyptians are still upset that Obama hesitated for days before finally backing their uprising against longtime President (and stalwart U.S. ally) Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They are frustrated, too, that Obama was slow to accept the military-led, popularly backed 2013 ousting of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected to succeed Mubarak but who quickly alienated some of Egypt’s staunchest democracy activists. And many are now angry that Obama resumed military aid to Egypt’s current government, which is led by a former general and is by many accounts more oppressive than Mubarak’s. Egyptians themselves have vacillated between their support for military rule and democracy, making it even harder for Obama to publicly chide the current government on its actions.
“Human rights is just virtually not even brought up between U.S. leaders and those of Egypt,” said Salma El-Saeed, a journalist with the news site Egyptian Streets.
Egyptians are also despondent over the turmoil in nearby Arab countries, especially Syria, Libya and Iraq, where the Islamic State terrorist network has taken root. They blame Obama for not doing more to stop the violence.
“We thought he would save the world from the terrorists,” said Hiba Rustum, a 28-year-old computer science student. “But he did the opposite.”
Some Egyptians admit Obama can’t control everything.
In the case of Egypt’s political turmoil, “I wouldn’t say that the United States did help or were not helpful … because honestly I think we destroyed ourselves by ourselves,” AbouLeila says.
But this is a country where conspiracy theories are as omnipresent as the choking brown smog in Cairo, and bashing the American president is a favorite hobby. (There’s even a joke about it. An American says to an Egyptian: “We have democracy. We can insult our president anytime and nothing will happen to us.” The Egyptian replies: “Then we have democracy, too. We can also insult your president and nothing will happen to us.”) Obama, some claim, is a secret supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group now cast as the ultimate evil in Egypt.
But once Obama goes away, then what?
Egyptians have mixed views of Hillary Clinton. They recall how her husband, Bill Clinton, tried to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his years in the White House. But they also remember Hillary Clinton’s close connections to the much-despised Mubarak and his family.
The mention of Trump, however, inspires words like “catastrophe” and “sub-human.” Egyptians are especially sensitive to Trump because of his pledge to bar Muslims from entering America.
“Trump?” Rustum says. “I don’t love him at all.”
Cuba: ‘Thank you for trying to help…But it’s too late.’
Willian Hernandez, a mechanic and a barber, loves his Cuban homeland. And he’s grateful to Barack Obama for restoring America’s ties with the communist-led island last year, a taboo-shattering move that many hope will bring prosperity to this time-capsule of a country.
But Hernandez also believes Obama’s actions came too late, especially for his generation. His phone is filled with video clips of Cuban friends cheering as their boats reach U.S. soil. Hernandez gets emotional as he insists that, no matter what Cuba’s future, he’ll soon go to America, too. After all, he’s already 29.
“You realize that it’s a change which is going to take a long, long time,” he says of Cuba’s potential future. “You only have one life to live and time flies.”
Across Havana, gratitude toward Obama for ending the decades-old Cuban-U.S. estrangement is laced with just such impatience. It’s easy to see why. Cubans struggle every day to meet their basic needs, and Cuban President Raúl Castro’s incremental economic reforms to the communist system haven’t changed their lives quickly enough. Many want Obama to do more to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba, hoping such a move will supercharge the transformation.
Not far from the ramshackle mechanic shop where Hernandez spoke, a young mother staged an extraordinary protest that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. The home she’d lived in her whole life was falling apart, but she never had the money to pay for its upkeep, and she said local officials wouldn’t help her. The rains in June were too much: Her ceiling collapsed. So on this steamy day, she dragged all of her furniture onto the street, forcing cars to swerve around her and drawing a crowd armed with smartphones.
As she sat in a rocking chair, two toddler boys in her arms, she demanded to see Raúl Castro. She insisted she was a revolutionary, that she believed in the system, a declaration that probably kept her from being hauled away. And yet, the fact that she was willing to make her demands so publicly hinted at a growing restlessness in Cuba, especially in the wake of Obama’s outreach.
“I will wait,” she said. “Raúl has to come.”
Some Cubans are shy about expressing their disappointment in the American president: They know it’s unrealistic to expect seismic change in Cuba after just a year. They also know that even though the Cuban government is taking important steps, such as moving to legalize more private businesses, the benefits are likely many years away.
“You must give time to time,” meaning be patient, says Yosvany Martinez Perez, a celebrated Cuban artist.
But there’s also a tremendous belief among many Cubans in the power of the American presidency to make an immediate difference in their lives, and unrealistic as this may be it leads them to question whether Obama could do more than he has.
Carlos Ulacia Alvarez, 51, greatly admires Obama, especially because of his African roots. He also is a regular at the Wi-Fi hotspots that have popped up in corners of Havana, a project the Cuban government is pursuing with U.S. encouragement.
“It’s late,” he says of the hotspot he’s visiting in a small park. “The whole world has the Internet. We’ve got it now, but it’s under control in different places. Why can’t I connect from home?”
Emilio Arturo Marill, a 90-year-old retired lawyer, argues that Obama could take even more steps than he has to weaken the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which only Congress can formally lift. He and other Cubans also want Obama to shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay— a goal impeded by members of Congress. (Cuba insists the U.S. return the territory, which is also home to an American naval base, despite a decades-old lease agreement.)
“He was a promise,” Marill says. “I was of that thought that Obama would be really a very important president and do a lot of things. Maybe he tried. I think he tried in some things, but he couldn’t.”
Marill, a supporter of the revolutionary movement that swept Cuba more than 50 years ago, also worries about future American domination of his country.
“I’m afraid that having relations with them will be worse than not having relations,” he says. “Why? Because of their power. Because of their intentions.”
Mercedes Fernandez, a 62-year-old retired secretary, said that if she met Obama, she’d tell him: “Thank you for trying to help and to open a way for the future for us. But it’s too late, because you’re almost finished, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
What if what happens next is a Donald Trump presidency?
Fernandez makes the sign of the cross. She’d clearly prefer Hillary Clinton.
“Don’t fool yourself,” she says of Trump. “Do you think a millionaire is going to come here to help poor people?”
Ukraine: ‘Be brave, much more brave.’
The first thing Ukrainians usually say about Barack Obama is that they appreciate what he’s done for them—that they are grateful for his moral and financial support of their efforts to engage more with the European Union and reduce corruption in their government.
Then, some ask if he could do more. Like send weapons to Ukrainian forces battling Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east since 2014. Obama, some Ukrainians interviewed argue, shouldn’t be afraid of standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially when it comes to a country whose citizens increasingly favor joining NATO.
“What Obama needs to do, he must risk more in his life,” said Yury Karamaneshta, who fled eastern Ukraine and now lives outside Kiev with his family. Over a meal of open-faced sandwiches and cake, the 35-year-old calls on Obama to “be brave, much more brave.”
Since the Ukraine-Russia crisis erupted, the Obama administration has committed more than $1.3 billion in foreign assistance to Ukraine, including training and equipment for its armed forces as well as humanitarian aid. Obama has also worked with counterparts in Europe to impose sanctions on Russia over its military action in Ukraine. However, Obama also has suggested that Ukraine is not a core interest of the United States—at least not the way it is for Russia.
There are divisions even within Ukrainian families (including Karamaneshta’s) on what more Obama should do. Many Ukrainians are sympathetic to Obama’s belief that sending weapons will dangerously escalate tensions with Russia.
But there’s also a sense of insecurity about how much Obama values Ukraine, and how much he’s willing to stand up to Putin as a result. In 2015, a year after Russia invaded and annexed the former Ukrainian territory called Crimea, a Pew poll found only about half of Ukrainians had confidence Obama would do the right thing when it came to global affairs.
“It seems like he can’t decide what to do, he can’t decide on which side he is, he’s trying to be good for all, he’s trying to play his own game,” said Dmytro Anopchenko, a well-known Ukrainian journalist.
Oksana Nechyporenko was among the protesters who hit the streets in late 2013 and early 2014 in Kiev, after the country’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, decided to abandon an economic agreement with the EU. The protests turned into a movement that ousted the government. Today Nechyporenko is active with organizations that are pushing for reforms in Ukraine, where corruption is rife.
She gushes with gratitude for Vice President Joe Biden because of his strong interest in Ukraine. And she’s sympathetic to Obama’s desires to avoid provoking Putin further.
Still, she wonders if Obama’s heart has ever been in this fight. “It’s really disturbing in a way that President Obama never found the time to come to Ukraine,” she says.
With six months left in his presidency, an Obama visit is unlikely. Like much of the rest of the world, however, Ukrainians are looking past Obama.
A Hillary Clinton presidency, many Ukrainians say, might actually be a boost for morale. Clinton has argued in the past that the U.S. should send defensive weapons to the Ukrainian forces.
Trump, however, inspires shudders, especially because of his highly complimentary tone toward Putin—an admiration said to be mutual.
“On one side we’re going to have Putin—it’s already bad. In the U.S. you will have Trump—it will be double bad,” said Sasha Lytvynenko, a 26-year-old executive assistant. “No. No, no, no. Everyone will be stuck in a bad sandwich.”