First published on September 17, 2012, this article continues to resonate. We think it timely to highlight it again and consider how much has changed…and how much hasn’t.
Popularity does not necessarily follow power. But it isn’t just its prominent role in shaping international affairs that earned the United States its middling score in the Reputation Institute study that we blogged about last week. Ranked at 23rd, the U.S. not only lags far behind leaders like Canada and Australia, but also trails developing countries like Brazil and Thailand. A significant factor in weighing down its reputation is the partisanship that has increasing dominated American politics.
The link between partisanship and negative perceptions of the U.S. is nothing new. As partisan division grew steadily over the last two decades, almost doubling under George W. Bush and President Obama, the nation’s global standing dropped significantly. Obama’s 2008 win actually gave a boost to the United States’ international reputation, but that gain has been eroded as Washington’s deadlock has forced him to break his promises of consensus and compromise.
It is not the mere perception of overly Partisan Politics that is damaging the United States’ reputation. Last year’s debt limit standoff, for instance, dealt a major blow. The issue came to be more an issue of trust and reliability than one of economic strength. The showdown “eroded America’s already diminishing aura as the world’s economic haven and the sole country with the power to lead the rest of the world out of financial crisis and recession,” according to the New York Times’ David E. Sanger. The reputational fallout included a downgraded credit rating from Standard and Poor’s and a more recent warning from Moody’s over concern “that the partisan stalemate would continue.” And while Congress and the president were butting heads, China usurped the United States’ global reputation as the “world’s leading economic power,” according to a recent Pew study.
Partisan entrenchment has contributed to other notable blemishes on the United States’ image, such as the government’s failure to match European countries in addressing climate change. Charges of partisanship have contaminated respected institutions from the Supreme Court to objective journalism, and the situation seems to be growing only more entrenched. While there is much discussion of Mitt Romney veering far right of his moderate record, the president has traded in his battered “post-partisan” ambitions for what The New Yorker dubbed a “post-post-partisan” approach. The United States’ reputation may be facing a reaction that is perhaps even more disturbing: apathy. The world is “much less interested in the 2012 U.S. presidential election than they were in the 2008 contest,” according to Pew.
A Call for Change
But the value of individual voices in changing perceptions should not be discounted. Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention seemed to resonate with a broad desire for political harmony, carrying his popularity to an all-time high and attracting praise even from Romney. The “politics of constant conflict” may be effective, Clinton said, but “good politics does not necessarily work in the real world.” If November’s victor can translate Clinton’s words into real-world cooperation and compromise, he might be able to break through the gridlock and set the United States on course for a revitalized international reputation.
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