The New Year in Germany got off to a sour start with an immediate front page story which worried politicians and vexed their voters.
The unfolding drama surrounding President Christian Wulff and some financial transactions in which he was engaged before he assumed the Presidency — including receiving a hefty loan from the wife of a millionaire friend and a generous home loan − immediately dominated the headlines and has escalated in the last few days. Efforts by President Wulff to put out the political fire, including a special televised interview on Jan 4, did not work and the public seems to be both surprised and irritated by the whole affair, with half the country believing Wulff should resign.
Such an outcome is the last thing the Chancellor needs right now. She has enough on her plate as it is with the Euro crisis still looming large. Since Wulff only assumed office in June of 2010, an early exit would be both embarrassing for him and for the Chancellor who essentially steered him into the office.
How this drama plays out over the next few weeks is not clear. It is probable that Wulff will hold on to his job, and with the Chancellor’s help, wait out the media barrage now washing over him. Some might argue that this largely ceremonial position is not important enough to command long-term attention. Wulff has apologized for his missteps and requested that the public give him a pass. It is not the only time a president — and there have been ten of them since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949 — has been caught up in some questionable activities in earlier positions. Johannes Rau was accused of taking free flights while he was Minister President of North Rhine Westphalia. Yet Rau outlived that during his presidential term. Wulff will likely survive his current trial, assuming no further surprises occur.
This spotlight on the President also raises questions about the role of the office itself. The basic law, or Grundgesetz, does not say a lot about the role of the President. In many ways, the ten presidents have essentially shaped the office in their own individual ways, through the force of their personalities and rhetorical styles. The President does have the authority to play the role of umpire in some legislative matters, and does participate in the executive process. (AICGS Spotlight on the Office of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany). Yet in the main, the ten presidents have essentially shaped the office in their own individual ways, through the force of their personalities and rhetorical styles.
Given the public platform provided by the office, the president acts as a national non-partisan figure, ideally above parties and politics. This is in fact a challenge for those who become the President, as all of them — with one exception — have emerged from the political field as veterans of political parties and known well by the Chancellor who in fact proposes them as candidates. Yet the job comes with an oath of office which says: …I will dedicate my efforts to the well-being of the German people, promote their welfare…and do justice to all”. This has come in line with a deeply seated desire for consensus building in German politics.
Performing that job comes with the expectation that the President’s chief responsibility is to symbolize the unity of the country. This was true right at the beginning of the Republic and became particularly important after unification in 1990. The president also serves as representative of the Republic abroad. But often the most challenging task is to offer a reminder of political, social challenges, or even moral issues facing the country.
President Richard von Weizsaecker’s famous speech in May of 1985 urging his fellow citizens to mark the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II by facing up to the legacy of the NAZI past remains a benchmark for all Presidents since then.
One of President Wulff’s first public speeches was aimed at the difficult theme of immigration. In that speech, Wulff proclaimed that Islam is part of Germany. Though a controversial stance, it was seen by some as a courageous challenge amidst much tension unleashed in Germany by a book claiming that Germany was “doing away with itself” with too many immigrants unwilling to integrate. Wulff was making use of the platform the Presidency was designed for, at the risk of alienating some members of his own political party, the CDU.
The impact of a German presidency has always been set by the individual President’s willingness to explore its somewhat undefined parameters. An ambitious President can seek to act as a counterweight to either domestic trends, or even a Chancellor, by fully utilizing the platform of public political persuasion.
While most Presidents have maintained high popularity levels in the past six decades, Wulff is now seeing his support wane in the heat of a largely negative media currently focused on what is portrayed as Wulff’s intentional misleading behavior. How hot that might still get in the coming days remains uncertain.
His predecessor, Horst Koehler – the only President who did not emerge from previous elected office – served a one five year term in office and then abruptly quit just after his reelection in the wake of harsh criticism of his comments on the German presence in Afghanistan. The explanation offered by some is that the President felt that his credibility had been undermined by the critique.
Whatever the reasons were, the fact is that the public platform – otherwise known as the bully pulpit – is the main tool available to the President. If it becomes questioned, the strength of the office is weakened for that President.
Assuming Wulff stays in office, he will have to sustain his position by continuing to fulfill the role he was given as President. The problem he faces, as do all political leaders, is the growing levels of distrust in the public at large when it comes to both government institutions in general and those governing them. The increasing uncertainty about the future, as well as the perception of politicians without a plan, have both contributed to a loss of traction among political parties. This loss has also been felt by other institutions which have heretofore delivered orientation, or at a minimum, some confidence in leadership.
The German Presidency has usually been seen as somewhat above the political fray. While that has meant that the office has been somewhat powerless – without much leverage or patronage – its success has nevertheless been a function of the skills of the President to deliver a persuasive message to the Republic. Since most of that travels through the media, it has been important for the President to maintain a public image with which he can persuade, prod and promote. President Wulff appears to be in damage control mode with the media for now.
Given her personal popularity, Chancellor Merkel will be critically important to how quickly Wulff can regain his footing. At the same time, Chancellor Merkel’s success to date is in no small measure a function of her ability to stay above political infighting as far as possible. She will need to navigate through this current storm carefully to assure her own political position.
Christian Wulff remains the main determiner of the success or shortcomings of the current Presidency. The Presidential office itself, after sixty two years and ten occupants, represents more than just ceremonial exercise. In light of the need for a strong national purpose in dealing with serious challenges ahead, it can remain an important source of inspiration. That is a rare commodity in today’s politically fragmented culture on both sides of the Atlantic.