With Donald Trump and his team struggling to spin the president’s 100th day in office, it makes sense for the White House to point to vague accomplishments that are inherently subjective. Trump likes to point, for example, to the nation’s improved “spirit” in the wake of his inauguration, which may seem silly, but it’s a claim that’s difficult to disprove because there’s nothing specific or quantifiable to examine.
“The world is responding to the leadership that the president is bringing under this – bringing to Washington. In all, during his first 100 days, the president has made 68 calls with 38 different world leaders, and hosted a total of 16 bilateral meetings. The president has rebuilt America’s standing in the world.”
But I’m fascinated by the White House’s broader, vaguer belief that Trump has “rebuilt America’s standing in the world.” At least for now, that’s tough to prove or disprove by any quantifiable metrics, but it’s still pretty easy to laugh at Spicer’s latest boast.
Let’s back up for a minute to provide some useful context. Younger readers may not recall this, but towards the end of the Bush/Cheney era, the United States’ international reputation took a severe hit, largely as a result of the war in Iraq. There were anecdotal reports about Americans traveling abroad with Canadian flags sewn onto their belongings, hoping to avoid confrontations with critics of U.S. policies and leaders.
Barack Obama’s presidency, to borrow a phrase, really did rebuild America’s standing in the world. This FiveThirtyEight piece from a while back fleshed out the numbers.
In 2012, Gallup asked whether people “approve or disapprove of America’s leadership” in 130 countries. It had asked the same question in 2008 in most of those same countries.
In 2012, the percentage of people approving of America’s leadership was up 7 percentage points in the median country since 2008. It was up 6 points in the Americas, 6 points in Asia and 18 points in Europe. It was down 3 points in Africa. More people approved than disapproved in every region.
Pew has conducted international polling asking whether people had a “favorable or unfavorable view of the United States” in every year since 2002. Pew has surveyed countries as diverse as Argentina and Uganda, but it has polled a different set of nations each year. The best years to look at are probably 2007 and 2013, when Pew polled more countries than usual.
From 2007 to 2013, Pew found that views of the United States improved in 22 countries. Eight nations’ favorable ratings increased by at least 20 percentage points; only four saw a decline. The median country’s views of the U.S. went up by 9 points.
The idea that Trump needs to “rebuild America’s standing in the world” is odd on its face, since the rebuilding has already happened. But the idea that Trump is actually completing such a task is even harder to take seriously.
The Republican’s presidency may be new, but there’s already evidence that Trump is something of apariah internationally – a problem made worse by the American president alienating and antagonizing a variety of foreign leaders, friend and foe alike, for no apparent reason.
If the White House is looking for actual 100-day accomplishments, my advice would be to look elsewhere.