international analysis and commentary

How Germans view the US presidential race


“I support him, no matter what he does.” This is how Chancellor Angela Merkel openly showed her support for incumbent President Sarkozy during the French electoral campaign in February. It was the only occasion in which she intervened in such an outspoken manner on a partisan basis in a foreign country. Normally, she is very cautious when sharing her ideas and when taking a firm stand on a politically charged issue.

Now, with the US presidential elections on the horizon, it is very unlikely to hear similar statements from the Chancellor  regarding  the campaign. She had  a strong relationship with President George W. Bush, but she has also forged solid  ties with President Obama.. Despite what has been written about a frosty start in the relations between the two leaders, recent events seem to confirm that there is indeed a good working relationship. This is for instance the opinion of Ulrich Deppendorf, one of the journalists closest to the German Chancellor.

The similar character of pragmatism has been the basis for growing trust and mutual admiration between Merkel and Obama. They have praised each other on many occasions. The German Chancellor went as far as saying that he is the best president for America one could imagine. Also from a strategic point of view, it would be easier for her to continue working with the same partner, since the personal relationship forms the basis for mutual trust and certain predictability.

Currently, again according to Deppendorf, Merkel  is suspicious of Mitt Romney as a former hedge fund manager and is not too keen on seeing him in the White House. However, she would be able to come to terms with him, just as she is doing with French Socialist Hollande. Yet, in order to avoid a shaky start in case the Republican candidate wins, she remains cautious by not taking any side on the matter – unlike the German media.

All the mainstream media are covering the presidential campaign to an enormous degree. They all feature special dossiers,daily reports and updates on the campaign. Every step taken by each candidate is watched closely by German journalists, who then deliver several stories and analyses each day. Whereas in Germany, electoral campaigns are arguably more focused on the parties’ policies and the candidates as politicians, the backgrounds of the candidates play a crucial role in the US. This arouses great fascination by the German public which is very much impressed by the personal story of Barack Obama.

The personalization created by the media throughout the elections, suits both the German media and its public alike. Germans are more fascinated by the President’s unusual life story and career than by his health reform. His past as a community worker in Chicago’s south side appeals more than his work as a Senator for Illinois.

In the same way, the German media emphasizes at least as much Mitt Romney’s gaffes as his vision for America. His past as a hedge fund manager and CEO of Bain Capital seems to be as pertinent, if not more, than his role as the Governor of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007. Instead of highlighting his strategy as a potential president, the German press rather focuses on the Republican’s tax returns.

Throughout the German mainstream media, it is as difficult to find unfavorable coverage of Barack Obama as it is finding journalists endorsing the GOP candidate. There could be, rather, critical voices saying that the incumbent has not lived up to his promises and has not fulfilled the hopes of millions of Americans.

However, the media recognizes that the very high expectations put into his presidency were always unrealistic. The center-left minded media like the magazine Der Spiegel or the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung are outspoken supporters of the Obama campaign. Whereas the newspaper emphasizes the President’s reported lead in the polls, the weekly constantly attacks the Romney campaign, making the most of his gaffes and denying him his credibility. In the Spiegel column “Bad, worse, Romney” Jan Fleischhauer asserts clearly how an electoral victory of the Republican candidate would mean a defeat for German journalists.

The conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine seems less passionate about bashing the former Governor of Massachusetts, but also highlights his mistakes and acknowledges Obama’s lead in the polls. Very rarely journalists speak about failure when talking about the Democrat. The overarching financial and economic crisis allows for him not to be blamed for the high unemployment. Yet, critics like Clemens Wergin from the center-right Die Welt criticize his Middle East strategy, accusing him of being responsible for rising anti-Americanism, even more than his predecessor.

Putting this into perspective, what becomes clear is that the US presidential campaign is covered and followed with huge seriousness in Germany. In fact, no other national election abroad gets more attention in Germany than the race for the White House. Although the outcome of the presidential campaign in France is more consequential for the German public, it received far less coverage.

Now, there is a fine line between how much of this kind of coverage is actually pushed by the media and what is demanded by the German public. However, most of the stories on the US campaign are welcome and well received. The culmination to a personification of Democrats and Republicans triggers great fascination by the German civil society since it is something that does not exist to that extent in Germany. The outcome will not directly affect the Germans, which makes the domestic political content of the campaign less relevant to them.

Where journalists go in line with their readers is certainly in the preference for the occupant of the Oval Office. In a recent poll published by the national TV station ARD, the DeutschlandTrend, three quarters of Germans are satisfied with the job done by the US President, only 16% are not. When it comes to the choice between the two candidates, it is even clearer: 86% would vote for Obama, whereas only 7% would do so for Romney.

There must be something that makes Barack Obama so much more interesting to the German public than Mitt Romney. Although his popularity has faded since his “revolutionary” election in 2008, he still looks youthful and energetic compared to counterpart Romney, aged 65. Barack Obama’s charisma is more appealing to the crowds than the Republican, sometimes stiff and distanced. However, in his presidency, the incumbent behaved less like a popstar like at times four years ago, but rather as an intelligent leader, being very much at ease on the international stage. This clearly contrasts with the trip by the Republican candidate  to Europe and Israel in July, which was marked by several diplomatic errors. This is, more than the economic situation across the Atlantic, what Germans see when making their judgment on transatlantic relations under his potential presidency.

Obama’s effort to change America’s image on the global stage and to get rid of the country’s image as a unilateralist actor, like under his predecessor, has also been valued by the German public. This multilateralist approach goes in line with the German stance on cooperation and consensus. On the other hand, the conservative candidate has demanded stronger American leadership that is needed to tackle protests and attacks suffered by the United States in the Muslim world.

Finally, President Obama’s breakthrough healthcare reform is praised on this side of the Atlantic where public healthcare is taken for granted, whereas the Republican ticket with neo-liberal running mate Paul Ryan is regarded with suspicion. By demonizing welfare programes from the Continent when claiming “We don’t want to become Europe” on campaign rallies, the Republican candidate is not likely to get many more German supporters. Given the two candidates and their stories, Germany has concluded it will support Barack Obama, almost regardless of his policy stance on specific issues.