WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The image of U.S. leadership worldwide was weaker during President Barack Obama's fourth year in office than at any point during his first administration. Median approval of U.S. leadership across 130 countries stood at 41% in 2012, down measurably from 49% approval in Obama's first year. Despite these poorer scores, approval ratings for the most part remain stronger than they were at the end of the last Bush administration.
This shift suggests that the president and the new secretary of state may not find global audiences as receptive to the U.S. agenda as they have in the past. In fact, they may even find even once-warm audiences increasingly critical. The image of U.S. leadership continued to be the strongest worldwide in Africa in 2012, bolstered by strong majority approval in sub-Saharan Africa. However, this strong support in the subcontinent, which first showed signs of weakening in 2011, waned more in 2012.
U.S. leadership remains far less popular in North Africa, except in Libya, where U.S. support for the revolution may have generated an almost unprecedented level of goodwill toward America. A majority of Libyans (54%) surveyed before the attack in Benghazi approved of U.S. leadership in 2012. In Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, no more than one-third approved and ratings remained mostly flat. Algerian approval of U.S. leadership is down slightly since 2011, dropping from 37% to 30%.
U.S. Image Stabilizes in the Americas
The free fall in U.S. approval in the Americas that began after Obama's first year in office ended in his fourth year. Median approval was stagnant at 40% between 2011 and 2012, but the U.S. image remains better positioned now than before the president began his first term.
There were no major declines in any Latin American or Caribbean country surveyed in 2012. There were double-digit increases in three, including key U.S. partner and neighbor Mexico. While the 37% of Mexicans who approve of U.S. leadership is slightly lower than the median for the region, it is still an 11-percentage-point increase from 26% approval in 2011. Some of the increase may stem from Mexicans' optimism about future U.S.-Mexican relations after Obama welcomed then-President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto to the White House in late November 2012 and pledged cooperation on trade and immigration reform.
European Approval Slips Among Economic Turmoil
Median approval of U.S. leadership in Europe has slipped 11 points since Obama's first year in office but was still twice as high in 2012 as it was during the last years of the Bush administration. Half of the loss took place in the last year alone, suggesting the U.S. was likely shouldering some of the blame for the ongoing financial crisis in Europe. A median of 36% approved of U.S. leadership last year, down from 42% in 2011.
Losses in approval largely outnumbered any gains in Europe, but ratings in many countries remained stagnant. The U.S. retained majority support in six countries in 2012 that span several regions: Kosovo, Albania, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Italy.
However, U.S. leadership failed to regain favor in countries such as France, Spain, and Sweden, where approval fell below the majority level in 2011 and stayed there in 2012. Further, views of U.S. leadership continued to worsen in some countries hard hit by the economic crisis, suffering double-digit losses in Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia, and Austria. Russia replaced Serbia in 2012 as the European country with the lowest approval of U.S. leadership (13%).

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U.S. Leadership Earning Lower Marks Worldwide