100 Days After Obama’s Inauguration

April 17, 2009

The American-German Institute (AGI), together with the NRW School of Governance at the University Duisburg-Essen, organized a bilingual workshop on the U.S. and German elections on April 17, 2009, in Washington, DC. The workshop on “Mutual Expectations Between the United States and Germany 100 Days After Obama’s Inauguration” brought together German and American experts to evaluate the politics and policy of the new U.S. administration and to compare foreign policy goals with Germany.

The first panel examined President Obama’s first 100 days in office as well as how much President Obama’s success can be a role model for German politics and elections. Several factors influenced President Obama’s success and reach into the first three months of his presidency: First, President Obama’s political capital: This is based on his historical candidacy and the fact that he was far removed from the culture wars of the 1960s, and that he simply was not George W. Bush. Second, his rhetoric, campaign style, and symbolism have been very well received in the U.S. Yet, other areas have been criticized: Key decisions on top administration personnel, especially the cabinet posts, have been hampered and top candidates had to withdraw their nomination on several occasions. However, President Obama has won praise for encouraging open discussions and alternative views in his decisions. President Obama has linked the economic crisis to many points on his agenda, arguing that solving the economic crisis requires fixing the health care and education systems and the implementation of sound climate and energy policies. Critics either allege that this agenda is too broad and impossible to implement or claim that President Obama is using the economic crisis to enlarge the federal government in the long-run. Three months into his administration, Obama remains personally very popular. Gallup measures his job approval rating at a steady 62 percent, down only slightly from its post-Inaugural high of 67 percent. No major elections loom, but the fall 2009 gubernatorial race in Virginia will be an early test; if the Democrats retain this post over a badly divided Republican party, it will likely confirm the national trend of 2008. One problem Obama faces are potential divisions in his own party. While the Republican Party is currently focused on internal matters, they generally tend to be more homogenous because they are less of a popular party (Volkspartei).

The first panel next examined how the ‘Obama phenomenon’ applies to German politics, and concluded that this connection is only limited. The German political system is profoundly different, and the position of the chancellor is not comparable to the U.S. president. The German Chancellorship encompasses five different attributes: First, the chancellor represents the government’s policy to the general public. Second, the chancellor is thus the focus of the media’s reporting about the government. Third, he or she is usually also chairman of the largest governing party and thus not disputed in his or her own party. Fourth, the chancellor is very much engaged in foreign policy, limiting to a certain extent the role of the foreign minister. And fifth, the opposition and government stand in clear contrast to each other. The different roles of the chancellor make charismatic leadership problematic, yet because the chancellor is in such a prominent position it is also desirable. After Schröder’s more exuberant style, Merkel’s more sober approach was welcomed. However, there has been an increased call from the public of late for more charismatic leadership. While the systematic differences (including the more distinct separation of powers in the U.S.) make a complete transfer of Obama’s style impossible, it might still be possible to adapt certain parts of his presidency also in Germany.

The second panel examined the style of the U.S. election campaign and the interaction between politics and off- and online media in the U.S. and Germany. In a democracy, politics is dependent on the support of the people. Policy decisions are communicated to the public by the media; in turn the support of the public (or lack thereof) is voiced through communication with the parties and politicians. The strong connection between media and politics means that any changes in communications and media styles have an effect on polity, politics, and policy. Web 2.0 allows for the self-organized interaction and communication among its users (social networks), which has revolutionized politics. Five characteristics are especially relevant: First, everybody can participate in this communication process, regardless of hierarchy or institutional constraints. Second, everything on the web can be traced, discussed, and is transparent. Third, due to the fact that most anyone with a computer can access the web, web content changes constantly. Fourth, the medium thrives on its inter-activeness. Fifth, lower costs allow outreach to an increased amount of users. Web 2.0 blurs the line between the transmitter of information and the recipient; thus, politicians and politics must aim at becoming an accepted member of the social networks of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 transforms the audience of democracy and democratic processes into participants and it creates new rules for political interaction. Additionally, Web 2.0 forces politicians to interact with their constituencies at an increased rate and to satisfy the public’s constant need for information. This can lead to a simplification of complex issues and could open the door for misuse and manipulation. Yet, Web 2.0 could also increase the participation of citizens in democratic processes by easing their entrance. This re-politicization is especially needed in times of increased disenchantment with politics. In Germany, questions have been raised if the new technologies undermine or support the established political parties. Parties have not yet found a good way of controlling the new media. The German election in the fall will show if the German parties are increasingly using the new technology and how successful they can do so.

The third panel analyzed German and American polling data on how Europe and the U.S. view each other in the first 100 days of President Obama’s administration. During the Bush administration, the image of the U.S. deteriorated significantly in Germany. A 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that favorable estimates of the U.S. in Germany dropped from a high of 78 percent in 2000 to a low of 31 percent in 2008. Two explanations are usually mentioned: President Bush and his foreign policy choices are cited as one, and the other being more general structural changes and systematic shifts in transatlantic relations which led to deteriorating transatlantic relations, resulting in the shift in public opinion. The first thesis seems to be supported by recent polls indicating the strong support in Germany for President Obama. A recent Deutschland Trend poll by infratest found that an overwhelming majority of German respondents (80 percent) were content with Obama’s work as president, and 78 percent regarded the U.S. as a country to be trusted, numbers that were similar to when Bush came into office. Again, two opposing reasons can be put forth to account for the Obama enthusiasm: Either these poll numbers indicate renewed transatlantic relations and a desire for mutual cooperation that could even overcome far-reaching policy disputes, or these numbers reflect a short-lived enthusiasm about Obama’s personality, which would lead to more negative poll numbers after the first unpopular foreign policy decision of the new U.S. administration. While the more positive image of the U.S. under Obama will enhance mutual relations and transatlantic understanding, the willingness to confront the U.S. with opposing views has increased in Germany and Europe. However, public support and enthusiasm for President Obama in Germany and the willingness for enhanced cooperation on the American side can soften the edges of possible policy disputes in the future and therefore positively affect American-German perceptions and relations.

The generally favorable sentiments in Germany and Europe are met by equally positive polling data in the U.S. The British Council found in their Transatlantic Network 2020 poll from January 2008 that 91 percent of Americans favor closer relations with Europe. More recent polls by the Rasmussen Reports on the occasion of the G20 and NATO summits showed that 88 percent of U.S. voters view America’s relationship with Europe as at least somewhat important (including 53 percent that say the relationship is very important). Interestingly, the British Council poll found that respondents rated the effectiveness of close cooperation between the U.S. and Europe largely negative in Europe and the U.S. So if relations with Europe and the U.S. are seen as favorable on both sides of the Atlantic, yet their outcome is rated as negative, does that mean that Europeans and Americans agree on cooperation in general but disagree on specific issues? Polling data on three issues of current importance provides a mixed result: On NATO and Afghanistan, a Pew Global Attitudes Poll conducted in June 2008 found that Americans favored keeping troops in Afghanistan (50 percent) versus removing them (44 percent). With the exception of Great Britain, this was not mirrored in the European poll data. Germany, for example, favored removing the troops by a 54 percent to 43 percent margin. Another interesting issue is climate change. Public polls in recent years have shown a fairly consistent agreement on both sides of the Atlantic on this issue. The British Council poll found that the environment (including climate change) was the most important issue of greatest concern in Germany, the UK, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Canada, and the U.S. Potential to address climate change in transatlantic cooperation does therefore exist. Yet, as the economic crisis continues and pressure begins to be felt much more in Europe, it remains to be seen if climate protection can be sustained in times of empty coffers and rising unemployment. The Pew Global Attitudes Poll from June 2008 found that Europeans largely blame the U.S. for the economic crisis: 72 percent in Great Britain and Germany and 70 percent in France say that the U.S. economy is having a negative impact on economic conditions in their country. Additionally, support for international trade continues to decline in the United States: 53 percent of Americans say trade is good for their country, down from 59 percent last year and 78 percent in 2002. This polling data suggests that cooperation is needed between Europe and the U.S. to thwart protectionist tendencies and to avoid another transatlantic crisis like the 2003 Iraq War debate. In combating stereotypes and misperceptions, the media plays a special and ambivalent role. The constant news cycle demands for quick stories and the downsizing of foreign offices and correspondents makes the media much more reliant on short wire stories, which do not allow for much background information and in-depth reporting. As the economic crisis opens the door for a populace calling for easy solutions and the desire to put one’s own country first, it becomes even more important to have media personnel who can resist the same temptation and introduce information instead of stereotypes in the political and public discussions.

The afternoon panels focused on a variety of policy areas, analyzing President Obama’s policies and German expectations in security and foreign, economic, and environmental policy. President Obama’s multilateral rhetoric has improved transatlantic relations concerning foreign and security policy. His decisions to close Guantanamo and to open direct negotiations with Iran have been welcomed in Germany. Yet, even under Obama, core elements of U.S. foreign policy such as hegemony, democracy promotion, and American exceptionalism will remain in place. President Obama has stressed that “the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda” in Afghanistan. Using the military categories of victory and “final defeat,” President Obama faces several problems: First, al Qaeda is a diffuse global ideology rather than a concrete terrorist network. Second, terrorism is not an ideology but rather a tactic in asymmetric conflicts, making winning against terrorism hard. Thus, President Obama would be well advised not to promise a final defeat of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Afghanistan is a critical test case for NATO and the transatlantic relationship. In his New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama indicated that he expects more burden-sharing within the alliance. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his European colleagues signaled their political support for the new U.S. strategy, but it is difficult to see concrete military commitments from the European side beside the vague supporting words. As the war in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular with the German population, German officials are especially weary to increase commitments in an election year. Beside these strategic reasons, the European and German reluctance to contribute more military strength in Afghanistan indicates another deeper problem: The alliance is in a profound identity crisis regarding what NATO stands for.

President Obama is still examining how his rhetoric will be followed by actions. Afghanistan has emerged as one of the top foreign policy priorities of the Obama administration. While the administration has changed its vocabulary on the issues, the parameters have not changed. The Obama administration was satisfied with the NATO summit in Strasbourg and Kehl because it understands that troop commitments are not the only benchmark, yet Germany will have to be careful not to become the odd man out. The question Europe has to answer is, does it want to be a part of making peace or does it want to be left in peace? While Europeans would like to see the war rhetoric toned down, Americans feel that this would be limiting their options. Europeans, and especially Germans, do not support the war in Afghanistan, because they do not understand the connection to their own security. Furthermore, they feel that a mission that once focused on humanitarian needs has turned into a war that they did not sign up for initially. Additionally, a large majority in Germany does not think that the war in Afghanistan is winnable, in stark contrast to the general U.S. viewpoint. Questions that the transatlantic alliance will have to answer also include the issue of whether stabilization and statehood are Western ideas which cannot be translated into the context of other cultures; what stability is and how it can be achieved; and if globalization ties countries closer together or rather accentuates the differences between modern and pre-modern states.

The fifth panel examined German and American economic policies, especially the responses to the current economic crisis. Germany and the U.S. had initially very different answers to the economic crisis; German Finance Minister Steinbrück refused to implement stimulus packages like the U.S. had done. Aside from initially judging the economic crisis to only be an American problem, the German government also does not believe in the multiplier effect of government spending. Currently, the U.S. administration prefers spending over regulation, whereas the German government seeks to first regulate financial markets. This is played out on the basis of two very different backgrounds: In Germany, fear of inflation is enshrined in “national memory” and drives economic policy. However, the worst moments in U.S. economic history were marked by deflation and its devastating effects. The U.S. argues that Germany (as an export nation) has benefited by other countries’ consumers spending and it would be only fair to increase German domestic spending now. The German elections in the fall make it hard for the German government to act decisively and consistently, as the economy is rapidly becoming an election campaign topic. The public outcry about management failure is much more aggressive in the U.S. than in Germany, yet skeptical attitudes about market economies are still stronger in Germany. While Obama’s argument to include health care, education, environmental, and health policies in the stimulus is politically sound, all four fields have not been responsible for the current economic crisis, leading to questions how effective he will be able to be. Lastly, there is no transatlantic consensus on financial regulations. It is widely believed that the financial crisis will become an existential threat to the EU, making a solution imperative for German and Europe.

The sixth panel focused on environmental policy, an area in which policies of the Obama administration and Germany are more similar. President Obama is clearly pursuing a different climate and energy policy than his predecessor. His New Energy for America Plan aims at the following goals: Reducing the CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (using 1990 as the base year); reducing the import of fossil fuels by one third in the next ten years; increasing the share of renewable energies and reducing electricity by 10 percent until 2012 and 25 percent by 2025; and the creation of 5 million green jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years. Germany’s climate and energy policy is based on the Meseburg accord, which details how Germany is implementing European policy on national level. Among the goals are a 40 percent of CO2 reduction by 2020 (base year 1990), which exceeds the EU goal of 20 percent CO2 reduction. Germany, like the United States, views climate and energy policy as linked. While German and European policies are geared towards the short- and medium-term, which raises questions of sustainability, the American policy focuses on the medium- and long-term, which might cause more problems in implementing them. The international community is aiming at agreeing to a post-Kyoto treaty at the climate summit in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. Yet, as the Obama administration is still being assembled, the U.S. might have to attend the negotiations without a clear domestic signal, unless Congress is able to pass a bill. The debate in Congress is shaped more by geographical differences than partisanship, with a broad agreement that the developing countries such as China and India will have to commit to emissions reduction as well to avoid carbon leakage. A suggested compromise to count a person’s CO2 emission rather than emissions per country, which Chancellor Merkel is not indisposed to, is not preferred in the U.S. The U.S. favors technological development in addressing climate change much more than Europe. The best scenario for Copenhagen is most likely not a final agreement but rather an agreement to continue to talk about the issues and to start to develop a system of global governance.