Balancing Political Checkbooks

Posted in Europe , United States | 31-Oct-09 | Author: Jackson Janes

US President Barack Obama (R) seen here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September 2009.

Envy in Washington?
When President Obama greets Chancellor Merkel next week in the White House, he may feel a bit of envy toward the reelected chancellor. In under 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 in Berlin and Washington.

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

Forging Consensus on Tough Issues
In Obama's first year in office, the traits of the president's style have been illustrated in the health care debate and the deliberations over next steps in Afghanistan, among others. 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 can not 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 is moving toward 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 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 who have a majority to work with. In Washington, there is no such coalition agreement possible between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Even with Democratic Party majorities in both the House and the Senate, the president can't take them for granted.

Challenges at the Land Level
Even if Merkel's legislative leverage in Berlin is an advantage over Obama's challenges, 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 Land (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, which also 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.

The Pace of Change at Home
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, health care reform, and budgetary austerity measures while maneuvering through the 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 the word '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 rich career in multiple capacities.

The chancellor managed to maintain an unusual level of popularity throughout her term despite difficult challenges. Critics accused her of too often going down the path of least resistance with her coalition partner, but her reelection is evidence that she held on to the reins enough to best her opponents and her critics, both within her own ranks as well as in the opposition.

Managing Policy Abroad
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 with her new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Merkel will need to stake out the parameters of German leadership and engagement in Europe, within 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 whether it was in dealing with a ruthless 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.

Gauging Progress Via Political Capital
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 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 savings in that political account to be able to spend it when needed. When they meet in Washington next week, they might want to compare notes on how best to keep their political capital accounts in the black.

This essay appeared in the October 30, 2009, AICGS Advisor.