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Decline Watch: The U.S. is getting less popular (but not where Republicans think)

Gallup and the Meridian International Center released their annual U.S. global leadership Report today. (You can find the full version here and highlights here.)

The big takeaway is that global approval of U.S. leadership in 2011 continued its slow slide since the excitement of Barack Obama's election -- though the country is still much more popular than it was in the last years of the Bush administration:

 

While some of luster of the Obama administration does seem to be wearing off, what's interesting is that it's not in the countries you might think, given the rhetoric of the presidential election. The "allies" that most frequently come up in Republican rhetoric still pretty much like us. Even after a contentious year in mideast diplomacy, approval for U.S. leadership in Israel is basically unchanged at 55 percent. In Britain, despite various perceived snubs, approval of U.S. leadership improved by 13 points.  As for the countries that Obama has supposedly thrown under the bus as part of the Russia reset, Georgia and Poland both showed slight improvements.

The fall in support was actually driven by Africa, where approval fell by 10 percent last year but is still quite high at 74 percent, Latin America, where it fell by 6 percent, and European countries like France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, all of which posted double-digit declines in U.S. support. If, as Mitt Romney charges, “This president takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe," they don't seem very appreciative of it. I would guess that the culprit in Latin America is the perceived lack of change in U.S. policies on trade, immigration, and drugs under Obama. Africans might be upset that despite his Kenyan roots, the president hasn't made the region much of a priority in his foreign policy.

Gallup's data from the Middle East and North Africa is a little spotty, but there doesn't seem to have been that much of a change in approval following the Arab Spring -- the U.S. remains pretty unpopular.   

The country with the biggest drop popularity was Liberia, where approval of the U.S. when down 25 points. Perhaps non-Ellen Johnson Sirleaf supporting Liberians were unhappy with Washington's tacit endorsement of the Nobel Prize winner in last year's election? That doesn't really seem like a big enough factor to explain that big a drop, so I'm guessing this was something a fluke.

Belgium saw the biggest improvement from 29 percent to 45 percent. Anyone have any guesses on how America got out of the Belgian dog house?

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Is the left the real story in the French election?

In the lead-up to this weekend's French presidential election, there's been quite a bit of attention paid in the U.S. media (including some fine pieces on this site) to the impact of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on the race. While Le Pen has no chance of winning, and little chance of even making it to the second round, her substantial support has pushed Nicolas Sarkozy to the right on questions of immigration and Islam.

But I wonder if, when the dust settles, the real story of this election might be the resurgence of the French "left of the left," in the person Left Party candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The 60-year-old ex-Trotskyite who left the labor party in 2008 when he felt it had moved to far to the center, favors confiscating income above 360,000 euros per year and outlawing layoffs by profitable companies. His message seems to have struck a chord in post-crash France. He is currently polling at around 15 percent, putting him in competition with Le Pen for third place. His appeal seems to extend not just to communists -- still a considerable demographic in the French electorate -- but to disenfranchised Socialist voters as well.

Aside from ideology, Mélenchon's blunt style -- "dickhead" and "bird brain" are among the insults he's publicly hurled at journalists who've gotten on his bad side -- couldn't be more of a contrast with the milquetoast Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.  Not surprisingly, a plurality of voters -- 21 percent -- say the former student radical who grew up in Algeria is the "most rock'n'roll" candidate. Sarkozy got 5 percent and only 1 percent picked Hollande. (Efforts to make Hollande's image a little hipper have been painfully awkward.)

A strong showing by Melenchon in the first round could push Hollande to continue his slow drift to the left, which has included a recent call for a tax rate of 75 percent for all income over 1 million euros. After two decades in which it seemed like a bit of a joke that center-left European parties were still calling themselves "socialists," the old-style left may be showing signs of life.

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