The Rise of the Rest At Home and Abroad

In a blog originally written just after President Barack Obama spoke to the Muslim world last June in Cairo and reposted last week following the president's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, NDN President Simon Rosenberg said that both events left him hopeful and inspired because they stem from what Simon calls the "central dynamic driving global politics today." Fareed Zakaria labels this dynamic "the rise of the rest." A big part of this change is both ethnic and generational. It involves the full emergence of people who are not of white European descent as full actors in the center of the world stage and not merely bit players on the wings. Many of these are young members of a global Millennial Generation (the American version of which was born 1982-2003). The "rise of the rest" is reflected in survey research conducted both in the United States and around the world since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. 

Shortly after the President's Cairo speech, the Pew Research Center released the results of its annual Global Attitudes Project. This major survey consisted of interviews with large samples (700+ per country and more than 26,000 overall) in 25 countries across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Perhaps the most striking finding, one occurring in almost every country, was a sharp improvement in attitudes and perceptions toward the United States, its people, and its policies between 2008, the last year of the Bush presidency, and 2009, the first year of the Obama administration. In the 2009 survey, favorable attitudes toward the United States rose in 20 of 24 nations. The number of countries in which a majority now held a positive opinion of America rose from 9 to 14. Positive attitudes toward the American people increased in most countries to levels not seen since 2002, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The improved perceptions of America and its people have led to greater acceptance of U.S. foreign policy goals and the steps being taken to achieve them. The sense that the United States acts unilaterally in world affairs declined decisively with the coming of the Obama presidency: in 18 of 25 countries a greater number perceived in 2009 that America would consider the interests of their nation in its actions than had believed this in 2007. Two years ago in only five of the countries did majorities favor U.S. anti-terrorist activities. That number rose to 15 this year. Most important, citizens in 17 countries believed that their own country should take a larger role in fighting international terrorism.

There can be little doubt that the improved attitudes toward the United States and its policies stem directly from the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. In 14 of 24 countries a majority said that Obama's election made them more favorable toward the United States. In an additional five nations, a plurality, if not a majority, made that claim. Even more impressive, in virtually all of the countries (23) a greater number said that they had more confidence in President Obama than had said this about President Bush a year earlier. Only in Israel was confidence in Obama less than it was in Bush, falling by a statistically insignificant percentage point. More specifically, majorities in most countries believe that Obama will take steps to deal with climate change and be fair in the Middle East. Only in Muslim countries (but not Israel) do the greatest number have doubts about the president's intentions in the latter area.

The "rise of the rest" is clearly having an impact on political attitudes and behavior in the United States as well. Since mid-Summer a point of never-ending attention within the inside-the-Beltway punditry has been the decline in Barack Obama's job approval ratings since he took office in January. A mid-November Gallup survey put the president's approval mark at 49%, an insignificant one-point less than it is in the most recent Gallup tracking poll. That score is, indeed, 17 percentage points lower than it was in the first Gallup surveys conducted immediately after Obama was inaugurated.

The article describing this survey was headlined, "Obama's approval slide finds whites down to 39%."  Indeed, the drop in the president's job performance marks since his inauguration was greatest among Republicans (down 24 points), whites (down 22 points), self-perceived conservatives and seniors (down 19 points each). However, Obama lost all of these groups to John McCain in 2008 and, as a result, none could be considered a real support group or member of the president's electoral coalition.

In fact, the better point of comparison may not be the president's job performance marks immediately after he took office, but the results of the 2008 election. Looked at from that perspective, the president's approval rating is within a few points overall, and among key demographics, of his vote percentage a year ago. In particular, his approval marks remain at high levels among groups won by Obama last year, especially his fellow Democrats and liberals (82% each), Millennials (61%), African-Americans (91%), and Latinos (70%).

Obama's high and virtually unchanged support within his own coalition points to the key importance of groups that will, in coming years, comprise an increasing share of the U.S. population and electorate-minorities, especially Latinos, and Millennials, a generational cohort that is 40% non-Caucasian. Census Bureau estimates indicate that, together, "minority" groups will become a majority in America around 2042. By 2020, more than one in three voters will be Millennials. These groups, along with women, have become the base of the Democratic Party and have the potential to form the bedrock on which will be built an enduring Democratic majority that could dominate American politics for decades to come.

More recently, however, while these key groups are no less positive about Barack Obama and the Democratic Party than they were a year ago, the intensity of their support appears much reduced. The most recent Daily Kos weekly tracking poll indicates that a preference for Democrats over Republicans in the 2010 mid-term elections remains overwhelming among Millennials (56%-5%), African-Americans (69%-5%), Latinos (49%-26%) and women (43%-20%). At the same time, only a minority of Millennials (39%), African-Americans (32%), and Latinos (42%), and barely half of women (51%) say they are likely to vote next November.

Overseas, the "rise of the rest" is contributing to more positive attitudes toward the United States and its policies, a trend based to a large extent on favorable opinions of Barack Obama. At home it was the primary demographic factor underpinning the president's winning of the White House and the Democratic Party's enhanced congressional majority in 2008. It is the way to continued Democratic success in the future. But the Obama administration and the Democrats have a more immediate concern: rekindling the enthusiasm of these key support groups and making the "rise of the rest" the center piece of their 2010 campaign.

Finally passing meaningful health care reform will help, as will continued efforts to improve employment and educational opportunities for all Americans, but especially Millennials. If Democrats succeed in doing that they will continue to take advantage of a dynamic that is continuing to shape events in America and around the world.