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Germans Learned Nothing from Obama

The US presidential election campaigns generated a lot of interest in Germany. I was amazed how Obama managed to mobilize so many Americans to campaign for him. I thought Americans had become political cynics, who would not believe in hope and vision. Yet, Obama achieved this.

Less than a year later, Germans have very little interest in the current election campaigns, which are very lame compared to the US campaigns. Voter apathy is high. We need an Obama type movement here to revitalize politics.

Quite a few German friends, who might envy the US, have shared this NY Times article about the situation in Germany on Facebook and via Email.

The German public followed the 2008 United States presidential election with surprising ardor, starting even before the Iowa caucuses. Yet, with less than six weeks to go before the parliamentary election that will decide if Angela Merkel remains as chancellor, the campaign is arousing surprisingly little passion or curiosity among voters.

At a time of economic and financial upheaval, with unemployment expected to climb rapidly through the rest of the year and as the most fragile of recoveries in the export-oriented German economy remains threatened by the vicissitudes of the unstable global economy, political commentators have been at a loss to explain why.

The voter apathy is well documented. The polling company Forsa said that 84 percent of the more than 1,000 people they surveyed recently found the election boring. Of those, 38 percent said the campaign was "absolutely not interesting and exciting," versus 46 percent who found it somewhat uninteresting and unexciting. Only 1 percent found it "very interesting and exciting." What interest there has been has tended toward the silly-season variety. Indeed, the candidate generating the most excitement at the moment is Horst Schlämmer.

In addition to this comedian, it was also a politician from the conservative Christian Democrats who caused some excitement in the United States. Vera Lengsfeld used her and Merkel's boobs to campaign. Time Magazine writes about her: Busting Out: German Pol Plays the Cleavage Card and The Colbert Report (HT: Ben P.) has this video segment:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tip/Wag- German Campaign, Russian Dogs & Flying Rabbis
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Health Care Protests

German Elections: "Italian Conditions"?

The Economist discusses Germany's political fragmentation. Since quite a few German journalists like to dramatize socio-economic downturns by using the term “American conditions,” I thought I can have a bit of fun by talking about “Italian conditions” as a description of Germany political fragmentation, even though Italy has been much more stable recently. The Economist does not exaggerate that much, although it does claim: “With five parties in the Bundestag, the make-up of the next government could become a lottery.”  

GERMANY’S two big parties— the Volksparteien or “people’s parties”—have long been the pillars of an enviably stable political system. But they have lost ground over the years and, whoever wins the parliamentary election on September 27th, the outcome may be more fragmentation.

Between them, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) captured 90% of the votes cast in national elections in the 1970s. In 2005 their combined vote fell below 70%, forcing them to govern together in a “grand coalition”. The latest polls say their share could sink to around 60% (see chart). “The Volksparteien are coming to an end,” says Peter Lösche, a political scientist. This worries many Germans.

And many other Germans don’t care at all. More and more Germans have lost interest in politics, certainly party politics.

Despite the “fragmentation” of the party system, there is very little excitement or “fear politics”, which I guess is a good thing. The current campaigns for the parliamentary elections on September 27th are very boring! The two leading political candidates – Steinmeier and Merkel -- are the exact opposites of Obama in terms of charisma, vision, emotional appeal, mobilization of supporters, inspiration of hope, reduction of cynicism and apathy etc.

In fact, I doubt whether the election campaigns even started. It’s that quiet. Maybe that’s also good. Politicians might get some work done, if they start campaigning six weeks rather than sixteen months before an election.

It's Business, Not Personal

Chancellor Merkel's first trip to Washington after President Obama's inauguration more than five months ago comes at a time of growing transatlantic tension.

Apparently, the tension is not just based on policy disagreements, like Washington complains about Germany's lack of support for the global stimulus, for the closing of Guantanamo and the for the war in Afghanistan. Rather both US and German journalists describe a strained personal relationship between the two leaders.

How severe is that lack of chemistry? Does it affect German-American cooperation or will the two leaders' pragmatic style of governance be more decisive and lead to improved collabortion? Join the debate on Atlantic Community.

"Merkel for the Fed"

The Wall Street Journal used to be very critical of Germany's economic and fiscal policies and big government, but now the paper is a big fan of the Merkel government. In March the conservative paper declared that Old Europe was right in rejecting Obama's calls for a huge global stimulus. And currently The Wall Street Journal (HT: John) is so thrilled by Chancellor Merkel ("Hallelujah, sister") that it wants to nominate her for chairperson of the Federal Reserve.

What happened? Chancellor Merkel rebuked the world's central bankers for being too politically accommodating:

"The independence of the European Central Bank must be preserved and the things that other central banks are now doing must be retracted," Mrs. Merkel told a meeting sponsored by Germany's association of metal- and electrical-industry employers. "We must return together to an independent central-bank policy and to a policy of reason, otherwise we will be in exactly the same situation in 10 years' time." Referring to the U.S. central bank specifically, she said "I view with a great deal of skepticism the extent of the Fed's powers." Usually when a politician lobbies a central bank, it's to demand easier money. We can't recall a similar tight-money intervention from a national leader, save perhaps Ronald Reagan's quiet support for Paul Volcker in the 1980s.

Conservative bloggers used to complain that Germany is so biased towards the Democrats. They said even a center-right party like Merkel's CDU would have more in common with the Democrats than with the Republicans. That still may be the case, but it seems that Germany's fiscal policy is now more in line with those from conservative Americans. And on a personal level, Merkel might got along better with Bush than with Obama.

Related posts:

Big Spending: What America Can Learn from Germany

National Temperaments Explain Reactions to Economic Crisis

Obama and Merkel are "Trans-Atlantic Frenemies"

"The White House views the chancellor as difficult and Germany is increasingly being left out of the loop," is the conclusion of a good Spiegel International article by Gregor Peter Schmitz and Gabor Steingart. According to them, the "Washington of Barack Obama" considers Merkel's policies "as hesitant. And when it comes to economic matters -- particularly after the experience in battling the financial crisis -- they don't feel she has much expertise."

The label "difficult" is attributable to Merkel's refusal to allow then-presidential candidate Obama to hold a speech at the Brandenburg Gate last summer. They also found it rude and impolitic when she didn't accept an invitation to meet with the newly elected president at the White House in April, despite that fact that both sides had been able to find time in their schedules for a meeting.

Reuters' chief correspondent Noah Barkin, however, puts the blame for the non-meeting on Obama.

The Spiegel article continues to quote two experts on Merkel: According to Dan Hamilton, director of the Trans-Atlantic Center at Johns Hopkins University, German "checkbook diplomacy" is currently experiencing a renaissance. And Stephen Szabo, head of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, is cited: "France is in right now. The impression is that Germany isn't really of much use at the moment. (...) Paris is no replacement for Berlin in the long-term. (...) The Americans will need the Germans again in their dealings with Russia. After the German elections a new era will begin."

Merkel got back-rubs from Bush, but she gets only a cold shoulder from Obama

Chancellor Merkel is "agonising over a series of slights (perceived or real) from Obama," opines Reuters' chief correspondent Noah Barkin (HT: David)

First came the message from Washington that Obama might not continue the regular video conferences Merkel held with Bush. In the end the White House came around, but it took two months to set one up.

Berlin also got the cold shoulder when Merkel tried to arrange a trip to Washington ahead of a G20 meeting in London at the start of April. Messages from Berlin with proposed dates went unanswered for days until Merkel’s team abandoned the idea completely, an official close to her told me.

This week came the latest signal, at least from Berlin’s perspective, that the Obama team is not taking German concerns seriously. The rescue of Opel, the German unit of U.S. car maker General Motors, has become the central theme of a slow-to-get-started German election campaign that pits Merkel against her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. A misstep on Opel and Merkel’s bid for a second term could be doomed. But when she called an “Opel summit” for Wednesday to try to save the car maker, her ministers were shocked to see only low-level representation from the U.S. Treasury — a crucial player in the discussions.

WSJ: "In Berlin, Obama's Becoming Just Another Bush"

Chancellor Merkel uses her opposition to Obama's financial policies to campaign for reelections, writes Malte Lehming from the German Tagesspiegel.

According to Lehming, Angela Merkel is following Gerhard Schroeder's anti-Iraq war strategy, but implements it in a more sophisticated way:

Is the financial crisis for Angela Merkel what the Iraq war was for Gerhard Schröder -- namely, a reason to seriously strain Germany's relationship with the U.S.? One need not answer with an unconditional "yes" to be very concerned. (...)

There's no question, Mrs. Merkel has good substantive arguments on her side. Mr. Schröder had some as well when he opposed George W. Bush before and during the Iraq war. Nevertheless, Americans and the German opposition -- namely, Mrs. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union -- accused Mr. Schröder of dishonesty. After all, his antiwar views were also motivated by electoral strategy and were not entirely free of general anti-Americanism.

Continue reading "WSJ: "In Berlin, Obama's Becoming Just Another Bush""

G-20 Summit: Merkel and Sarkozy Challenge Obama

Wall Street Journal:

President Barack Obama had more success with former Cold War combatants than with some European allies as the Group of 20 summit of world leaders began, starting new talks on arms and trade with Russia and China but facing a challenge from France and Germany over economic leadership. Mr. Obama began by conceding U.S. culpability in starting the global financial crisis, but also called on Europe and others to do more to end it, in an opening news conference with the summit host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel answered just hours later with a combative appearance of their own, demanding fast and strict international regulation of the world financial system; Mr. Sarkozy called it "nonnegotiable.