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Americans like Merkel, Germans loathe Trump

Jefferson Chase (Berlin)
February 28, 2018

Donald Trump remains very unpopular in Germany, while people in the US are generally positive about Angela Merkel, a new study finds. And that's just a single aspect of a relationship that only one side sees as strained.

Symbolbild Verhältnis USA Deutschland
Image: picture-alliance/R. Peters

Germany and the United States are a bit like a badly communicating couple, in which one partner is planning a joint future while the other is googling divorce attorneys. That's one way of describing the main conclusion of a new study about German-American relations conducted by the Pew Research Center in the US with help from the Körber Foundation in Germany.

After interviewing more than 4,500 people in both countries, researchers found that 68 percent of Americans thought US-German relations were good and only 22 percent bad. In a striking contrast, 56 percent of respondents in Germany thought US-German relations were bad whereas 42 said they were good.

Read more: Germany's Gabriel: 'We need a European moment'

There was also disagreement about the most important aspect of US-German relations. While both groups stressed the importance of "economic and trade ties," 34 percent of Americans identified "security and defense" as a major point of common ground, while 35 percent of Germans singled out "shared democratic values." That's a bit puzzling since Germany depends on the US so heavily for its own security.

What's crystal clear, however, is the main reason for the differences in perception: the man who occupies the White House.

"Often how people feel about the American president has a big impact on how they feel about the country of the United States," Richard Wike, one of the principle co-authors of the study, told DW.

As the president, so the country

Infographic popularity of US presidents in Germany
The precipitious decline in these numbers coincides with the Trump presidency

Donald Trump's approval rating at home may not be much to boast about, but in Germany it's abysmal. A mere 11 percent of Germans asked expressed "confidence in the US president," confirming the results of other public opinion studies. That immediately dragged the percentage of Germans who had a favorable view of the US down from 57 percent in 2016 to 35 percent after Trump took office in 2017.

Read more: Germany's Sigmar Gabriel slams Donald Trump's 'national selfishness' in UN speech

By contrast, Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, enjoyed approval ratings of between 71 and 93 percent among Germans, the majority of whom felt confidence in the US for all of Obama's eight-year tenure.

It's no secret that Germans prefer Democratic to Republican presidents, and Trump's numbers aren't without parallel. In 2008, only 14 percent of Germans approved of George W. Bush, and German confidence in America (31 percent) was lower than it is today. Bush's popularity low, however, came late, while opposition to Trump was immediate.

"The numbers we're seeing for Trump in Germany look a lot like the ones at the end of the Bush administration," Wike said.

In a DW snap poll outside the Reichstag in Berlin, without exception, all those asked said that they thought US-German relations had taken a downturn, blaming Trump and contrasting him negatively with his predecessor.

"Obama was my friend," one woman said with a nostalgic smile.

Merkel has grown on Americans

Infographic American Confidence in Merkel
Merkel has been getting more and more popular in the US, particularly among Democrats

Perhaps because Americans don't perceive US-German relations to be truly strained, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is far more popular stateside than Trump is in Europe.

Read more:Germany's Merkel arrives in UAE to talk trade and refugees

64 percent of American Democrats say they have confidence in Merkel to do the right thing regarding world affairs. Despite the fact that the chancellor has never concealed her skepticism, if not aversion concerning Trump, even 50 percent of Republicans approved of Merkel.

Interestingly, Merkel's popularity in the US has been steadily growing, perhaps reflecting her increasing presence as a veteran leader on the world stage.

"She's becoming better known," Wike said. "Even five years ago we were getting close to a third of Americans who didn't have an opinion about her."

Wike added that in 2017 only 14 percent of Americans had no opinion on Merkel.

If anything, Merkel is slightly more popular in the US than in Germany, where cracks have begun to appear in her former Teflon-like invulnerability. In the most recent public opinion poll, only 48 percent of Germans said that they would vote for Merkel if they could elect their chancellor directly. Still, she remains among Germany's most popular politicians.

Trump notwithstanding, Americans want to work together

US flag in Berlin
Although individual US presidents may be unpopular, German-American ties are deepImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Trump may be often dismissive and disinterested where other countries are concerned, but Americans across the political spectrum are positively inclined toward Germany. Some 72 percent of Democrats said the US should cooperate more closely with Germany — compared with 67 percent of independents and 59 percent of Republicans.

Read more: America's 'First Daughter' visits Germany

The numbers trend differently, if still positively, on the question of whether US-German relations are good. Whereas 80 percent of Republicans believe they are, only 66 percent of Democrats and independents share that view. That could reflect Republicans greater prioritizing of economic relations or a greater cosmopolitanism among those further to the left on the political spectrum.

Interestingly an identical proportion of Germans and Americans, 39 percent, say that the other side should do more to help solve global problems. But of course it's always easy to say that a partner isn't quite pulling his or her full weight in making a relationship work.