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Will the Obama bounce last?

While there is new common ground on climate change, Americans and Europeans still look at Afghanistan and Iran very differently.

Tourists walk in front of a poster of U.S. President Barack Obama in front of the museum The Kennedys in Berlin, Aug. 28, 2009. (Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It’s unquestionably a “bounce” — up to an “almost stratospheric” height, according to one transatlantic expert. But is Barack Obama's popularity in Europe also a bubble, destined to burst?

That’s the logical question when looking at new figures released last week by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and the Italian Compagnia di San Paolo in their annual Transatlantic Trends survey. Graphs comparing the approval ratings of presidents George W. Bush in 2008 and Barack Obama in 2009 evoke the trajectory of a pogo stick: BAM! 12 percent for Bush in Germany. BOING! 92 percent for Obama. BAM! 11 percent for Bush in France. BOING! 88 percent for Obama. Overall, the positive reaction to the U.S. president has quadrupled from when the White House changed hands to when the survey was conducted in June.

The gap was the largest ever seen in any category in the report’s eight-year history and shocked even the most optimistic Obama supporters, said Ron Asmus, director of GMF’s Brussels office. “No one thought this kind of bounce was possible,” he marveled. “People were so pessimistic after Bush and said ‘okay, 10, 20 percent would be good.’ But instead you got 60, 70 points. These things don’t happen but once a century!” The enthusiasm of the 12,000 European respondents is evident also at the leadership level. A day after Transatlantic Trends was released, European Union Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas was asked at a news conference whether he was hopeful the U.S. would be willing to pay its fair share to help developing nations fund climate change initiatives.

Dimas’ answer made one suspect an earpiece and wire connected to a White House scriptwriter. “The U.S. and this administration [are] fully committed to combating climate change and reducing emissions,” he told reporters. He went on to describe the current U.S. congressional process for the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill. The commissioner also mentioned having faced a “wall” and “very difficult times” with the Bush administration.

“The effort [members of the Obama administration] have committed to is really a sea change in comparison to the previous administration. And so we really appreciate what President Obama and his administration are doing,” Dimas said.

But while he’s scoring greenie points with the European Commission for now, Obama isn’t likely to be able to do that on most foreign policy issues. If that comes as a disappointment to both sides, it shouldn’t be a surprise. While the president personally has the support of three out of four Europeans, about the same proportion (77 percent) disapproves of sending more combat troops to Afghanistan, a current priority of his administration.

“We spent the better part of the last eight years deluding ourselves that the real issue between America and Europe was George Bush and that ‘if only, if only…’,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, executive director of the Transatlantic Institute, a Brussels think tank. “So now we’ve got the perfect anti-thesis of George Bush. … It’s like the perfect match. But the policy issues that underlie the differences between America and Europe transcend the president.”