Europe Loves Obama, But Will They Respect U.S. in the Morning?

As President Obama returns from across the Atlantic, America's image abroad is on the rise. According to a recent CNN poll, 79 percent of respondents believe Obama has helped foster our public image (put me in that camp). His trip was, according to Hans Nichols and Edwin Chen of Bloomberg News, a "symbolic triumph."

So what about the substance? Actual accomplishments, it turns out, are harder to find. Despite flowery prose and rave reviews, both Germany and France resisted administration pressure for combat troops in Afghanistan, instead sending support staff and training personnel, and stood firm against additional government stimulus spending. In essence, the president has returned home empty-handed on two key administration priorities. That he does so this early in his term — when he has more power, more political capital, to shape agreements than he will at any other time in his presidency — has to be a disappointment.

Popularity in Europe can be an asset — and not just for selling David Hasselhoff records. It can, or should, help a president on the world stage. Republicans who automatically dismiss Obama's popularity in Europe, such as a friend who remarked to me on Monday that he didn't give a rat's you-know-what what "they" think of us, demonstrate a head-in-the-sand attitude that dismisses the future and forgets the past. Part of the effectiveness of Ronald Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate — "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" — was the Reagans' popularity at home and abroad.

The key is leveraging that popularity into substantive victories. This is where Obama was largely unsuccessful. Or, as CNN polling director Keating Holland put it, Obama's primary achievement was "increasing good will rather than winning specific concessions from other countries."

That the Obamas were a hit in Europe should be no surprise. But whether President Obama returned home with tangible results — whether they respect him in the morning, so to speak — is open to debate and certainly of more consequence than personal popularity.