Fascination with the American presidency is a phenomenon around the world, and Germany is no exception. Indeed, it is particularly fixated on the process of choosing the next White House occupant. As presidential hopefuls announce their candidacies, German media coverage illustrates a continuing preoccupation with the drama of American politics—with maybe a dose of jealousy thrown in to the pot.
Many Germans find the cast of characters vying for the presidency confusing, occasionally shocking, and generally entertaining. Given the more predictable and far less dynamic process of selecting their leaders, the money-soaked, media-saturated, and more anarchistic American system of political races is simply more engaging. Yet the possibility of a strange or unknown personality—an actor from California, a peanut farmer from Georgia, or a young Senator from Massachusetts or Illinois—suddenly becoming the most powerful person in the world is always sobering. It is marked contrast to how it usually happens in Germany, where the political party system controls the churning of political leadership.
When Barack Obama launched his first campaign, after only three years in the Senate, he was barely on the German radar. Yet as Obama gained steam and became the Democratic nominee, he caught fire among the German public, with nearly 250,000 turning out to hear a twenty minute speech in Berlin in July 2008. No German politician could match that feat. (Friends of mine always suggest that the then German Pope might have been competitive.)
But the main reason Germans were so enthralled by Obama’s “rock star” performance was their own desire to see a president more attractive to them than the Bush administration of the previous eight years—and, quite frankly, more interesting than any they might vote for at home.
Seven years later, Germans are not quite as excited about Obama. They have gradually come to realize that Americans elected a president—twice—with a mixed track record as far as German expectations are concerned. Two of Germans’ top concerns—Guantanamo and the NSA—are still in operation. Nor Obama has not expressed a lot of personal interest in Germany, despite awarding Chancellor Angela Merkel high accolades and medals. He remains an iconic figure among Germans, but has lost some of the magic of 2008.
Cooling Interest in American Politics?
As we now enter a new chapter in presidential campaigns, one might wonder whether Germans have cooled on the American political contest. On the Republican side, none of the candidates have much resonance in Germany other than Jeb Bush, who might be saddled with the additional burden of his brother’s name. On the Democratic roster, the only one immediately recognizable is Hillary Clinton, whose husband remains a popular figure in German circles to this day.
Of course Hillary certainly stands out as the first female candidate for the White House from one of the two major parties. Given the fact that the Germans have elected a woman three times in a row to their top post, their interest in this milestone could be less than when Obama became the first African American candidate in 2008. The attitude that “We’ve been there, done that” may well overshadow the mystique of a woman in the White House.
Apart from the relative decline in Obama’s popularity, Clinton cannot match the conditions of 2008 that were so instrumental in Obama’s ability to form his brand. Be it the perceptions of electing a young black president or of Bush’s disastrous record in Iraq, Obama appeared to Germans as exactly the image of the president they wanted—or thought they did. Hillary Clinton may bond personally with Chancellor Merkel more easily than did Obama, but the Obama track record should remind Germans again that all American presidents see relations with other countries foremost through the lens of American interests. Clinton would be no different.
Even with Clinton’s experience as Secretary of State, the political parameters of a president are shaped by the ability to forge allies not only abroad, but also on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Only those who know how to steer through that process can be effective presidents. That skill has been brought into the White House by others without extensive foreign policy experience—Bill Clinton’s presidency is an example. That might also remind those around the world not to underestimate candidates about whom they have heard or seen little. The power of a president abroad stems in no small measure from the ability to secure support at home. Germans may feel disillusioned by Obama, but many of those frustrations are a result of his weak support on several fronts in Congress and on both sides of the political aisle.
Lessons from the Obama Era
As a new president takes office in January 2017, the expectations of Germans, and indeed all of those countries waiting for the next administration’s moves, will be in many ways shaped by what the Obama era might have taught them:
- American interests trump all. Do not expect any American president to be more concerned about other countries’ concerns than about the perceived American interests. Despite all rhetorical references to transatlantic solidarity, that has not changed over the course of many presidents, and the perceptions of the current president has not altered that reality.
- Presidential power is complex. Germans need to grasp the changing complexity of presidential power. The U.S. may sometimes seem to act like a parliamentary system in these days of acute polarization, but it will never become one—there are too many influences on members of Congress, the president, and the entire range of factors influencing decisions and policy directions. The current battles over negotiations with Iran, recognizing Cuba, or relations with Israel are illustrations of the difficult challenges of forging consensus in American foreign policy. Domestic issues are just as tricky. Deciphering the decision-making process in Washington will be increasingly difficult and perhaps unpredictable.
- Germany needs to set its own foreign policy priorities. Much has been discussed and written in German circles about the need for a more proactive foreign policy direction with an emphasis on leadership. The recent Foreign Office report wrestles with the complexity of setting its own priorities. That report centered on three themes defining the framework of German foreign policy: crisis, order, and Europe. Each theme represents the challenges Germany faces in dealing with the permanent presence of global crises and the need to strengthen crisis management institutions within a European framework. There is a decided emphasis on approaching these challenges in and through Europe. And there is not a lot of space devoted to transatlantic relations.
As always, the next president will carry the burden of implementing American policy based on his or her reading of American interests. Efforts to forge common ground with partners like Germany will always be parallel to that process. But it will be an uneven course and not always successful, as both the Obama and Bush legacies have shown.
The process leading up to Election Day is going to be noisy, sometimes unpredictable, and at times circus-like. But the 45th President of the United States, like all predecessors, will be a product of the American way of choosing a president. Whoever he or she is, Germans will have to deal with that unique mix of style and substance. It is always tempting for politicians to impose their own political categories on their foreign counterparts, but it rarely works. And on average, Germans have not done too badly with the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.