Globalist Analysis

Balancing Political Checkbooks

What can President Obama and Chancellor Merkel learn from each other during their Washington meeting?


  • Leadership in Europe is a precious commodity these days. There is a need to ratchet up the stakes.
  • Merkel will need to figure out how much change or reform the country can tolerate in dealing with the economic headwinds.
  • Merkel faces her own set of challenges. A constant parade of elections at the state level will be held up as a weathervane of her political clout.
  • Merkel's legislative leverage in Berlin gives her an advantage over Obama, who has to contend with factions even within his own party.
  • The two leaders share a similar approach to governing — a search for a consensual method of achieving their goals.

When President Obama greets Chancellor Merkel this time around in the White House, he may feel a bit of envy toward the reelected German chancellor.

In less than a month, she has successfully wrapped up her coalition negotiations and had her entire cabinet sworn in and ready to go to work. The snail’s pace at which Obama’s appointments have been unfolding has underlined the differences in governing between Germany and the United States.

Yet, the two leaders share a similar approach to that governing process — a search for a consensual method of achieving their goals.

In Obama’s first year in office, the traits of the president’s style have been illustrated in the healthcare debate and the deliberations over the next steps in Afghanistan, among others.

This mantra can be summed up as: Seek out common denominators and move toward the middle of a solution supported by as many as can be recruited. Don’t head for confrontation if it can be avoided.

Such an approach cannot only win friends, but it can also alienate ideologues on either side of the political debate, as Obama is experiencing across a range of issues now.

While Obama has encountered hurdles in the way of that strategy, Merkel has just shown that it can work: She was just reelected as chancellor.

Of course, governing in a parliamentary system with a coalition government is different from the challenge of steering relations between the president and Congress.

The German chancellor can rely on her majority to push her agenda — for the most part. The new coalition in Berlin worked out an elaborate agreement in which all the goals for the next four years were set down, but that does not guarantee that they will all be met.

It does, however, serve as a benchmark for both the government and the voters.

In Washington, there is no such coalition agreement possible between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Even with Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, the president can’t take them for granted.

Even if Merkel’s legislative leverage in Berlin gives her an advantage over Obama, the test for her remains in holding the popular support of the voters. The challenges she faces lie in a constant parade of elections at the state level over the next four years, each of which will be held up as a weathervane of her political clout.

While Obama has to worry about one Congressional election between his victory last November and his bid for reelection in 2012, Merkel faces over ten state elections over the next four years. Each and every time, their outcome can impact the majority she needs to maintain in the upper chamber of government — the Bundesrat — which can hold up legislation if it is lost.

In light of that, the chancellor is probably going to pursue a course during the next four years not unlike the last four in terms of domestic policy choices as well as foreign policy challenges — and hope that it is at least as successful as her first run.

At home, she will need to figure out how much change or reform the country can tolerate in dealing with the economic headwinds expected in the coming year — and at what pace.

She will have to sequence tax cuts, healthcare reform and budgetary austerity measures, while maneuvering through a political atmosphere certainly to be charged up by the opposition parties in the Bundestag who will be looking for vulnerable targets.

The chancellor will be equipped again in her second term with a tough Finance Minister — Wolfgang Schäuble, having moved over from the Interior Ministry.

As was the case with his predecessor, Peer Steinbrück, Schäuble will have the difficult task of having to say “no” when it comes to keeping the fiscal and budgetary goals in sight over the next four years, as the Gordian knots of cost cutting across several sectors will need to be untangled. But he can do that well, as he has shown in his long career in multiple capacities.

The chancellor managed to maintain an unusual level of popularity throughout her first term despite difficult challenges. Critics accused her of too often going down the path of least resistance with her coalition partner.

However, her reelection is evidence that she held onto the reins enough to best her opponents and her critics, both within her own ranks as well as in the opposition.

On the foreign policy front, she will need to feel out what capabilities she can offer when it comes to dealing with tough issues like staying the course in Afghanistan or applying more sanctions on Iran.

Together with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and her new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Merkel will need to stake out the parameters of German leadership and engagement in Europe. This also applies to NATO and in the network of international organizations in which Germany has long played a central role.

In the recent past, Merkel was sometimes criticized as being too cautious on the foreign policy stage — particularly when it came to dealing with Russia, whether during the Russian power move in Georgia or holding off efforts to expand the boundaries of NATO or the EU.

But the fact is that leadership in Europe is a precious commodity these days. There is a chance for Merkel’s team to push the debate both over Germany’s foreign policy interests and goals as well as the next stage of the European Union. Given the apathy within many European member states directed at Brussels, there is a need to ratchet up the stakes. But that begins in the national capitals.

Some critics in Germany are also lamenting what they say is an inadequate level of political adrenalin showing in the new/old team in Berlin.

That is too quick of a call, however, as the benchmarks of success will be seen in the ability of the voters over the next four years to gauge where progress and improvement in their lives is being made — and to whom they attribute it.

Merkel managed to accumulate enough political capital to be able to cash it in for a new four-year term. Whether she will be able to replenish that account over the next four years will depend on her ability to navigate the challenges facing her and her cabinet.

Obama has three years to build up and then use his current capital to achieve a second term. The benchmarks for him will be the same as Merkel’s, just as some of his strategies and tactics will be similar.

There may be one constant reminder to him during this time, however. During the last four decades, we have seen three one-term presidencies: Johnson, Carter and then Bush the elder.

If he is going to avoid that fate, he will need to accomplish what Merkel just did — generate enough credit in that political account to be able to spend it when needed. As they meet once again in Washington, they might want to compare notes on how best to keep their political capital accounts in the black.

Editor’s Note: This essay appeared in the October 30, 2009 American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) Advisor.

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About Jackson Janes

Jackson Janes is executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies

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