Why they love us (or at least Obama)

(Photo: flickr/Tyler Driscoll for Obama for America)

International polls leading up to Tuesday’s election showed extremely strong global support for President Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. A poll for the BBC World Service showed Obama beating Romney in 20 of 21 countries; other polls showed similar results.

To the crowd watching election returns at the American Club in Singapore, reasons for that support included Obama’s international ties dating back to his youth, a general preference for political continuity, and Obama’s willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with players on the global stage.

Obama won praise for backing away from predecessor George W. Bush’s militaristic approach to foreign policy, for working to rebuild America’s stature overseas, and for avoiding the kind of reckless tough talk that Romney had for China.

Expatriate Americans understood the closeness of the race in terms of a Red State vs. Blue State smackdown, but struggled to explain to non-Americans why the race was close at all.

Obama is an easy sell abroad. “Barack Obama is a Pacific president who was born in Hawaii, spent some of his boyhood years in Indonesia, and people in Southeast Asia feel a special connection to President Obama,” said US Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman, an Obama appointee.

“President Obama, having such connections to an international upbringing … people think he gets it a little bit more,” said Steve Okun, chairman of the Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce (APCAC) and a Democrat who served in the Clinton administration. (The American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore and the United States Embassy in Singapore organized the Election Watch event.)

Romney, on the other hand, is a relative unknown on the world stage who committed a series of well-publicized gaffes on a tour of the UK, Israel and Poland, prompting many to wonder if he lacked an understanding of foreign affairs.

“People here watched very closely, it was a disaster. As soon as he landed in England he offended the British regarding the Olympics, and it just went downhill from there,” said Jeff Watkins, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Lion City Committee and legal counsel to startup companies. “I don’t know that you can extrapolate too much from that, but I think it’s a big issue.”

Singaporeans like Vincent Tan, owner of a relocation company, worried as he watched CNN report election results that a Romney victory would mean a return to the war-prone administration of President Bush.

“In past history, from what I gather, Republicans are more on the war side,” Tan said. “We need someone who can negotiate with the big countries in Asia, China and India. (Obama) has a soft approach, Romney has a hard approach.”

Michael Dee, an American investment banker living in Singapore and a lifelong Republican, agrees with that assessment. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the US enjoyed broad international support, but that goodwill began to crumble with the US insistence on going to war with Iraq.

“The movement to unilateral war, preemptive war, we lost all that support. The world would have been a very different place had we not gone to Iraq and had we maintained that real coalition,” said Dee, who voted for Obama and said he hasn’t voted for a Republican since President George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton.

Domestic issues drove the American election. Foreign policy is low on the list of voters’ concerns, and when it comes to getting abroad, only about 30 percent of Americans hold passports.

“In the States, the Midwest and center part of the country are less exposed to the rest of the world, and that’s what is mostly Republican. If you look at the electoral map, all the blue is on the fringe — New York, California — and all the red is in the middle,” said Stephen Jacob of Chicago, watching his first presidential election as an expat.

America suffers from the view that it sees itself as the dominant force in the world with a willingness to impose its will on others, noted Diana Luo, a Chicago native who works for an American investment firm in Singapore. “That’s why Romney is not so popular in the rest of the world, because in some ways he may not be as direct about it or as obvious about it as Bush, but he has the same sentiment that America is the leader, that America should lead and take up that mantle to police the rest of us. The rest of the world doesn’t agree.”

Laurel Wood, a Democrat originally from New Jersey who has lived in Singapore for two years, worried that Romney, if elected, would have surrounded himself with rigid ideologues. “The team that would be around him would be primarily people who previously worked for Bush and some of whom have that neocon perspective about exporting our values worldwide,” she said.

That view is shared in Scandinavian countries, where people feel closer to Obama’s vision on the role of government, said Hanna Ollinen of Finland, an international politics and business student at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“(Romney) has more of this American hegemonic point of view, where you have to kind of show the world that you’re the best,” she said. “Maybe it would be better to realize that there’s stuff happening around the world; Asia is growing very fast, South America as well.”

Anders Kjemtrup, a Danish exchange student at Singapore Management University, said governing for either Obama or Romney would be difficult given America’s partisan divide. “Even though Obama wins, you have half of the American population not voting for him,” he said. “For either of the candidates, that’s a big problem, you have that divide right in the middle that is destructive in politics.”

David White, a Kansas native, retired banker, and former chairman of Lion City Democrats, worried about Romney’s threats to label the Chinese as currency manipulators on his first day in office.

“If he did that, we’ll have a crisis with the Chinese, and if they walk away from buying our debt, interest rates will go to 7 percent and we’ll really have a world crisis on our hand,” White said.

But that didn’t worry Terrence Kierman, who is originally from New York and has lived in Asia for 24 years. Kierman voted for Romney and wasn’t worried about the Republican’s position on China. “I don’t think China gives a damn. The trade flows between China and the United States, and there are a lot more important issues than who is the guy on the picture,” he said.

Michael Zink, an Ohio native and head of ASEAN at Citi in Singapore, voted for Romney as well. “I just like a pro-business guy leading government,” he said.

Nicole Legenski, who is from the Reading, Pa., area and a Fulbright scholar at the National University of Singapore researching chemistry, voted for Romney but concedes that Obama is better-liked around the world. “He’s popular because has a history outside of the United States. People especially in other countries really like that about him. His foreign policy is generally pretty well received,” she said.

Miriam Archibong, who is from Atlanta and is in Singapore on a Fulbright scholarship researching education, voted for Obama and thinks the president can best handle foreign policy. “President Obama is very diplomatic, he seems like he is more interested in having conversations and trying to figure out what is the happy medium for my country and your country,” she said. “Romney seems like he is more ‘this is my way and this is what we are going to go for, and if you don’t like it, then deal with it.’ That would take some adjusting, particularly in the Islamic nations. It could create some problems.”

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