Given the enormous difference in origin of two political leaders like Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, it may not be as obvious at first glance how many similarities they actually share. Nevertheless, there are many parallel characteristics that define their political styles. One is caution, whether it involves decision-making or the dissemination of their innermost thinking. Both of them also hold their cards close to their chest and keep a very strict circle of advisors around them. They also share a major “first” — the first African-American president and the first female (and East German) chancellor. Yet above all of this, despite their different styles of public appearances, they also share another characteristic — that of a particular brand of governing.
President Obama and Chancellor Merkel have each become more than the offices they hold. Both now twice elected, they are morphing into their own singular symbols of leadership and power. That offers special opportunities to shape the agenda of their respective republics. It will also make it an especially difficult act to follow for their eventual successors.
Obama became an icon even before he was elected in 2008. Now, following a brutal election, he has been given another four years to leave his legacy as a two-term president. He has overcome significant barriers to get to where he is and by the time he leaves the White House in January of 2017, both he and the country will be defined by his chapter of the presidency. Each of the four modern two-term presidencies that preceded him also carries its own brand of governance. However, Mr. Obama adds the special dimension of not only being the first African-American president, but also truly exemplifying the changing character of the country, including the U.S.’ debates about itself and its future. Obama may be a sign of a transitional president in a transitional country, one that is politically, socially, and culturally in flux. How will the successor of this president look as he — or she — takes the oath of office? Certainly the Obama brand is unique. But it will also not be transferable. The potential candidates who seek that office will need to draw their respective battle lines as they seek their own brand to present to the nation. That leaves a very wide open field ahead.
In Germany, six of the eight chancellors since 1949 have won re-election at least once. With no term limits, two were re-elected four times. Merkel could have a third term after the elections in September of next year. Her chances look good. But with nine months still to go, anything can happen. The uncertainty of politics, especially concerning the volatility of Europe these days, could make this feel like a lifetime.
Yet what will not happen between now and then is a challenge to her candidacy in 2013. At her party’s annual convention this week, Merkel received a virtually unanimous vote to confirm her as the leader of the party. She is also enjoying (by wide margins) high marks in public opinion polls. Despite the bickering over Greece and other euro headaches, Merkel enjoys as strong a level of support as any chancellor in the history of this sixty-four year old republic. Like Obama, Merkel is also her own brand in Germany. Partially because of her unique accomplishment as the first woman in the office of chancellor, but mostly because of her skills as a political manager, she has effectively eliminated serious domestic challengers while maintaining an image of control in the eyes of public, as well as in other capital cities, including Washington, DC.
Nevertheless, not all is positive about these developments for both Obama and Merkel. The challenges they face in office will be equal to those they both leave behind. One of these difficulties will be how to pass their batons to their party’s choices as successors. Chancellor Merkel knows how her predecessor, Helmut Kohl, spent sixteen years in office without building up a successor only to lose the Chancellery to the Social Democrats in 1998, thus leaving his party in disarray for the following seven years. During a potential third term, Merkel would need to weigh the consequences and method of nurturing a successor knowing full well that her brand would not be transferable to the next generation.
The success of a political leader in office does not always equate with the success of his or her party. In the U.S. experience, the last five decades have seen the political pendulum swing back and forth in the White House despite the popularity levels of a president. In Germany, while Merkel’s party has held the Chancellery for twice as long as the Social Democrats, the CDU has not profited from longer runs in office, as can be seen in the aftermath of Adenauer and Kohl.
The fact is that politics have become increasingly personalized around the President and the Chancellor, leaving aspirants seeking those high offices struggling to generate their own distinctive images. That can be embarrassingly messy in the U.S. with its clumsy primary system of producing candidates, as was demonstrated this past year. But in Germany, where there are no primaries, the pressure to produce a personal brand is also a challenge for both challenger and incumbent. The pull of the political party is becoming less decisive than the pull of a personality brand.
President Obama has his presidential race behind him and he is no longer burdened by another campaign. Yet even now, those who want to follow in his footsteps will need to know how to forge a brand like his — though somehow different. There may already be one among the Democrats with an edge in that race. The chances for another term in office for Chancellor Merkel may look promising now, but her challenger also owns a brand and will seek to polish it in the coming months.
The politics of political leadership is about performing. It consists of a mixture of postures and pitches to a public increasingly bombarded with conflicting messages and contradictory arguments. Sorting that out has become exponentially more complicated. The politician who can develop a brand can project consistency and persuasiveness amid all this confusion. That is a major asset at any level of politics.
The highly successful records of Obama and Merkel are benchmarks now for those who think they can follow them. It will not be an easy walk — no easier than it was at the beginning for the President and the Chancellor. But for now, they can congratulate each other in mastering the art of the brand.