The Merkel-Obama Riddle — Or: What Makes Leaders Hesitate?
Examining the parallels in the political style and performance of Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, the past decade’s transatlantic power couple.
December 4, 2021
Here are two seemingly unrelated facts: Germany badly lags when it comes to the digital transformation of its economy. It is making progress on this front only sluggishly.
That, despite the fact that Angela Merkel, the — very soon to be former — German chancellor, promised progress on the digitalization of her country in every election campaign since 2005.
That runs counter to her carefully established reputation for being a no-nonsense, hands-on and results-oriented politician.
America’s 300-year-old legacy
Meanwhile, the United States still has to contend with structural racism, which is the legacy of mindsets and practices that started all the way back in the early days of slavery.
Racist hierarchies and power imbalances are a daily fact of life for many U.S. citizens, predominantly but not solely for African Americans. These structures hamper their livelihoods and limit the nation’s progress toward its ultimate promise of “the pursuit of happiness.”
Leaders and their promises
These two issues give rise to a fundamental question: What are the roles and responsibilities of political leaders in resolving major economic and societal issues?
While no leader can be blamed for all that happens in today’s ever more complex countries, leadership does matter. And so does the realization of a leader’s personal potential.
The last decade’s transatlantic power couple
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power for just over 16 years. Her political soulmate, former U.S. President Barack Obama, served the constitutionally allowed maximum of two terms in the Oval Office, from 2009 until 2017.
To assess the big question of leaders and their roles and responsibilities, let’s look at the political style and performance of the transatlantic power couple.
Merkel was educated as a scientist and has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Barack Obama is a Harvard-educated lawyer.
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 embodied the promise of racial progress. While Obama didn’t – and couldn’t have successfully – run explicitly on racial issues, he did run on the promise of bringing “change.” That at least implied changing the underlying racism of many U.S. institutions.
Powerful narratives versus weaker performances
Both Merkel and Obama were successful in making their respective nation and the world buy into their narratives. However, the results they delivered are something else.
From education and health care to public administration, Germany’s level of digitalization falls far short of where a country of its economic development should be. Worse, the pandemic has brutally exposed Germany’s lack of preparedness for the digital age.
Similarly, Obama was too hesitant in calling out the United States’ racial problem. To be sure, he could sermonize with the best of them.
But when it really mattered for bringing about transformative change around race, he held back. He resisted the temptation to show emotional involvement and real conviction.
So close, and yet…
Angela Merkel and Barack Obama are friends. A photo of them greeting each other upon his last presidential visit to Germany showed a touching regard for each other, rarely seen among leaders of mighty nations.
Over the years, both have repeatedly articulated their mutual admiration. Such an understanding between leaders can be fruitful. It also reveals a lot about the character of each person.
Outliers = Outsiders = Ineffective?
Some of the personality traits of Merkel and Obama not only explain their close friendship. They are also indicative of mutual shortcomings in failing to deliver the concrete changes they should have delivered on.
To begin with, both Merkel and Obama were outliers in their respective political parties and their nations.
Merkel spent her formative years in the German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany. To be allowed to study for an advanced university degree was unusual for a young woman whose father was a Protestant minister. After all, the East German communist system eschewed religion.
Navigating this tightrope made Merkel tough and circumspect, but also too careful. These qualities proved helpful in her career as a politician in Germany and help explain her longevity in power. However, they have not always served her country equally well.
What her background failed to provide her with was courage. The core task of any political leader is the ability to push through transformative change.
Tellingly, Merkel once said, “Life in the GDR was sometimes almost comfortable in a certain way, because there were some things one simply couldn’t influence.”
Whether she as Chancellor was truly unable to influence things or whether she only did what was in her own interest, all too often she avoided trying to effect change on structural issues.
…and Obama’s carefulness
As the child of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother, Barack Obama grew up as an outlier, similar to Merkel. Both of his parents were free spirits and accomplished intellectuals.
He was raised partly in Indonesia by his mother and her second husband. Later he was looked after by his white grandparents in Hawaii. Obama had to learn to navigate the complex terrain of different ethnic and racial groups from a young age.
As is true for too many black men and women, Obama was always aware that overly identifying with “blackness” could be a career obstacle. So, Barack Obama strove to fit in.
The styles of both
Both Merkel and Obama used the skills garnered from their early life experiences to cultivate the styles that helped them win office.
Obama has a charming smile, which he used to good advantage as a politician and a presidential candidate.
Merkel chose to display a no-nonsense plainness that sits well with Germans. For historical reasons, most Germans distrust political theatrics or even too much personal style. Merkel chose to focus on displaying “good sense” and even to project a certain motherliness.
Intellectuals as politicians
Both Merkel and Obama display an analytical bent of mind. One pitfall of analytical intellects is that they often tend to believe in the sufficiency of their hard-earned analytical skills. They prefer to leave the practical implementation of their ideas to others.
They even avoid execution, seeing it as the equivalent of “blue collar” work, as compared to their own “white collar” ideas-orientation.
German culture and skepticism
Merkel’s aversion to the more hands-on aspects of policy had less to do with social status and more with German culture. In Germany, one very often hears “Ich bin skeptisch” (”I am skeptical”) in conversation.
This peculiarly German skepticism frequently entails a stylistic skepticism that points to hesitation or risk aversion more than to actual substantive reasoning.
Best not to appear too smart
The sources of hesitation in the United States are different. There, intellectuals have long learned to downplay intellect if they are to succeed in U.S. society, especially as politicians.
They use their Ivy League degrees only selectively (often for fundraising). But they know very well that they must not appear too smart, whether toward other politicians or the general public.
Though he was known primarily for his professorial cool, President Obama often started his sentences with the colloquial “Look, folks” – a rather folksy clause coming from the former editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Neither Merkel nor Obama seemed really able to tame their intellectual arrogance. This inability led to charges of “aloofness” vis-à-vis both of them.
Moreover, their intellectual bent often caused them to hesitate at decisive moments. Perhaps reflexive caution is the chief reason why both ultimately fell short in the realm of policy making.
Having promised to bring Germany up to snuff digitally, a more forceful leader than Merkel would have early on enlisted a task force of industry insiders, entrepreneurs and educators to develop a plan and to set firm deadlines for implementation.
Such a leader would also have put the required political capital into play. This requires teamwork, trust in others and leadership. Precisely those qualities were missing in Merkel. Instead, a “kitchen cabinet” – the embodiment of aloofness – of a few trusted aides was the reality of her strategy.
Surrounded by ultra-loyalists
While a kitchen cabinet of loyalists is not uncommon in politics, it can be self-defeating. The ability to hear truly different voices and to let others have their heads is rare, but ultimately yields better political results.
Merkel has largely relied on an ultra-loyal cadre of women. Obama surrounded himself with liberal Democrats, often from Harvard, to match his professorial cool. The top office is often lonely, but one has to resist wanting colleagues who coddle.
A black man’s hesitancy to address race
Obama’s health-care reform in his first term was a significant accomplishment, particularly in light of also having to deal with the financial crisis.
Yet he could and should have used his second term to address structural racism. But he didn’t – although, arguably, even white middle America seemed ready for it.
Aloofness thus prevailed in Obama’s case, too. However, Americans really don’t like aloofness.
In stark contrast, the “old White man” Joe Biden went to Oklahoma for the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Tulsa Massacre, and said:
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre – among the worst in our history, but not the only one. And for too long, forgotten by our history…We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides.”
Sometimes you just have to say certain things.
Blackness and self-restraint
Obama was always personally intimidated by the possibility of being seen as “an angry black man.” This reluctance toward displaying emotions caused him to avoid identification with the racial issues that continue to fester in the United States.
For example, given various mass shootings, he could – and should – have also clearly addressed the scourge of gun violence, also now being addressed by his former Vice President.
Race and presidential elections
There is a line of reasoning that holds that had Obama made race more of a central issue, he would have obliterated the Democrats’ chance of winning the 2016 election. This assumption is wrong.
The day Obama was elected in 2008, the die was cast with regard to the racists in the United States — the roughly 30% of voters that voted for Trump. What clinched the election for Trump was the poor campaign run by Hillary Clinton, pure and simple.
Merkel: Failing her big test
Compared to Merkel, Obama had the benefit of being able to serve only two terms. This is beneficial because, in some ways, the longer leaders stay in office, the more they become what they always were at heart.
Awkward attempts at managing the pandemic manifest Merkel’s choice to go it alone, as she did in her final years in office with similar decisions around energy policy and refugees.
Both Obama and Merkel fell short of their potential because of a kind of sluggish hesitancy built into their characters.
And yet, both excelled in being able to construct a sympathetic narrative about themselves that many people, especially international audiences, bought into.
Tellingly, both Merkel and Obama were better regarded abroad than by their domestic constituencies.
Putting a priority on stated goals
At home, both Merkel and Obama, despite their reputations for soberness, were easily distracted from their promises. No doubt, they had some genuine grounds to be distracted.
Yet, they should have strongly prioritized certain stated goals. In Merkel’s case, the promise to bring Germany up to snuff digitally. And in Obama’s case, the opportunity to address the structures that maintain white supremacy and create economic and social inequities in the United States.
Merkel’s stunning Biden disconnect
The analysis of the intertwining of the personalities and political characters of Merkel and Obama also helps solve the mystifying way in which the Merkel government has shown coolness toward Joe Biden’s Administration.
While Germans were relieved that Trump is no longer in office, Merkel nevertheless pulled a gut punch on Biden with regard to China.
This seems to be because Biden is everything that Barack Obama is not. Whereas Obama always tried to be, and often was, the smartest guy in the room, nobody would ever accuse Biden of that.
Arrogance is not his thing. His plain-spoken genuineness is another reason why Biden is a better politician than Obama. Nor is Biden hesitating to make bold policy choices.
Conclusion: Merkel, Obama and Woodrow Wilson
The 2021 book “The Road Less Traveled” by Philip Zelikow illuminates how the failure of yet another intellectual leader doomed the 20th century to two world wars.
German leaders of 1916 and early 1917 handed peace on a platter to Woodrow Wilson: “In the failure to make peace at the most opportune moment, no one failed, and failed the world, more than President Wilson. His was the most consequential diplomatic failure in the history of the United States.”
Even though he was Barack Obama’s dutiful Vice President, Joe Biden is proving himself to be vastly different from Obama. In Germany, the question is whether, in Olaf Scholz, Germany has chosen a leader who is vastly different from Angela Merkel.
Merkel and Obama were outliers in their respective political parties and their nations.
Compared to Merkel, Obama had the benefit of being able to serve only two terms. This is beneficial because the longer leaders stay in office, the more they become what they always were at heart.
Tellingly, both Merkel and Obama were better regarded abroad than by their domestic constituencies.
Merkel once said, “Life in the GDR was sometimes almost comfortable…because there were some things one simply couldn’t influence.”
With a black father and a white mother, Obama grew up as an outlier -- similar to Merkel’s growing up in a pastoral household in East Germany, an anti-religion state.
One pitfall of analytical intellects is that they often tend to believe in the sufficiency of their hard-earned analytical skills. They hesitate – as did Merkel, Obama and Woodrow Wilson.
A peculiarly German trait is a stylistic skepticism that points to hesitation or risk aversion more than to actual substantive reasoning.
Neither Merkel nor Obama tamed their intellectual arrogance. This inability led to charges of "aloofness."