“America in the run-up to the elections – what will Obama or McCain mean for German-American relations?” Speech by Karsten D. Voigt, Coordinator of German-Ameri

16.09.2008 - Speech

I. Preliminary remarks: not only the President, but also the Congress is being elected

On 4 November 2008 the presidential elections as well as the elections for the 111th Congress will take place in the United States of America. The German media and population have an extremely high interest in the elections. One expression of this interest, and at the same time of exaggerated hopes for a fundamental change in American politics, was the massive crowd of 200,000 who turned out to listen to Democratic candidate Barack Obama hold a speech before the Siegessäule in Berlin at the end of July.

The focus of the public's general interest is clearly on the presidential election, though the importance of the congressional elections should in no way be underestimated. The Congress takes on an important role in the American constitutional system through its budget, tax, and trade policy competences. Without the Senate's approval the President cannot sign treaties, or appoint ministers, Supreme Court justices or ambassadors.

In the election, the American people will vote on all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, as well as a third of the seats in the Senate. The Democrats currently have a majority in both houses. This majority is, however, very slim in the Senate with 51 to 49 votes, and is due only to the fact that two independent senators lean towards the Democratic position. According to all predictions, this advantage is expected to increase because the Republicans have to defend 23 of the 35 seats that are up for election, including five open seats, where the incumbent is not running for re-election. Moreover, eleven of the twelve most heavily contested seats are or were held by Republicans. Yet despite the predicted gains, it is still unlikely that the Democrats will be able to reach the crucial threshold of 60 seats required to sidestep a filibuster by the minority, a tactic used to prevent a resolution from being passed by indefinitely extending the debate.

In the House of Representatives the Democrats currently hold a majority of 236 seats to the Republicans' 199. This majority will probably also be increased, even if only by a small margin, as the latest prognoses after the Republican National Convention suggest. However in special elections last spring Democrats were able to secure three seats in districts that were previously regarded as Republican strongholds.

Yet, the Democrats should be warned by the opinion polls. The Republican Administration under George W. Bush may be unpopular, but the Democrat-dominated Congress has disappointed voters to a far greater extent. When the Democrats secured a congressional majority in 2006, they promised to end the war in Iraq, restore budgetary discipline on the federal level, and exert stronger control over the Administration. Yet due to their only very slight majorities and the extent of the President's constitutional power, these promises were hardly kept in the eyes of the voters. For example, Congress approved additional billions of dollars for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without managing to get Bush to set a timeline for troop withdrawals out of Iraq in return. The result is clear: at the end of August 49% of Americans polled reported that they were very dissatisfied with the work of the Congress, while 29% reported being dissatisfied.

The numbers look especially bad for George W. Bush. In the same survey 64% reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the President. Even more people – over 70% – stated they believed the country was headed in the wrong direction. Five years after the start of the military operation in Iraq the population is tired of war, and unsettled by the high number of casualties and the financial burdens for the federal budget and taxpayers. The continuing economic decline and the real estate and financial crises, which have led to feelings of insecurity in the American middle class, weigh even more heavily on people's minds.

II. Issues and candidates in the presidential election campaign

Given the negative public view of the President and Congress, 'Change' and 'Hope' have become the key concepts of the campaign. Barack Obama was the first to bring these themes onto the playing field during the primary campaign, thus prevailing over Hillary Clinton, who was originally considered to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. As a relatively young candidate, the son of a Kenyan father and a mother from the American heartland who appeals to all Americans' desire for change, his supporters see him as representative of a modern, urban, ethnically diverse and tolerant society that is more interested in solving problems than in the old trench warfare between ethnicities, parties and social classes. He has found many supporters among educated and well-off voters of all skin colours. Black Americans support him with an overwhelming majority. But most importantly he has managed to mobilize a large number of young voters. They were already going door-to-door in the perfectly organized primary campaign, and have turned the Internet into an effective campaign tool, thereby raising enormous funds.

While Hillary Clinton tried to score points with her experience and rational debate style, and appealed to primarily older voters, women, voters of Hispanic descent and the white working class, from the start Obama's campaign resembled a movement that consciously drew on John F. Kennedy's legacy and Martin Luther King's style. In this style critics see elements of the Great Awakening and other charismatic movements in American history. The candidate thereby became a blank screen onto which supporters could project their dreams and hopes, and did not have to get very specific on content during the primary campaign. Now in the race against McCain, Obama has to try and make up for these deficits.

It was unclear to what extent the long struggle for power between Obama and Clinton within the Democratic party would later hinder the winner in the actual presidential campaign. While it was clear already at the beginning of March 2008 that John McCain would be the Republican candidate, the Democratic primary race dragged on until June. Various commentators speculated that – not least because of the strong polarization within the party – many frustrated Clinton supporters would not vote at all, or would even vote for McCain. However, at the Democratic National Convention the Clintons put themselves firmly behind Obama with two forceful speeches, in order to re-establish unity within the party. If opinion polls are to be believed, they were successful.

Obama chose the 65 year old Senator Joe Biden as his running mate and vice presidential candidate. There seem to have been two reasons behind this choice. Firstly Biden, a longtime expert on foreign and security policy in the Senate, is supposed to compensate for Obama's lack of experience (compared to McCain) in this area, thereby undermining one of the main arguments of the Republican campaign. Secondly, it is hoped that Biden will have a greater appeal to the on average elderly, white lower middle class and working class Clinton supporters, with whom Obama has had a tough time. A lot will depend on Obama's ability to mobilize. If he can manage to get those people he mobilized during the primary campaign as newly-registered voters to actually vote on election day, he stands a good chance of winning.

In contrast, John McCain represents a very different America, namely the more small-town, rural, white and elderly electorate. The 71 year old senator is an expert on security policy with extensive experience in foreign policy, who survived imprisonment and torture during the Vietnam War and is often dubbed a 'maverick' due to his unorthodox and impulsive personality as well as his political non-conformity. Honour and patriotism are his maxims. On foreign policy he's considered to be a hawk, who advocated the surge of American troops in Iraq and sees Islamic extremism as the key security threat to the West.

Just before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul at the beginning of September, he unexpectedly chose the until then completely unknown Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. The socially conservative Palin made her debut on the national political stage in St. Paul with a spirited appearance that appealed to classic American instincts. She is a life-long member of the National Rifle Association, a stark opponent of abortion and disputes the idea that humans are primarily responsible for climate change. She sees the war in Iraq, as well as building pipelines through national wildlife preserves in Alaska as part of God's plan. Additionally, she has the image of a dauntless reformer who cleaned up politics in her state, not even stopping at corrupt officials in her own party and thereby gaining approval ratings of 80% and more. This so far positive image of Sarah Palin among conservative voters gave the McCain campaign a powerful push.

The choice of Palin doesn't matter much for the more liberal female followers of Hillary Clinton. Her task is to mobilize the large Evangelical constituency. This section of the Republican base is sceptical of McCain because, in their opinion, he represents sociopolitical positions that are too liberal. As a senator he often undogmatically stepped outside of party lines to promote political projects, and on issues like immigration and abortion he is considered to be moderate. On the one hand McCain is consciously distancing himself from the unpopular Bush Administration with his reputation as an unorthodox outsider, and is campaigning as if he were the candidate of a movement opposed to the style and substance of typical Washington politics. On the other hand he needs the religiously and sociopolitically conservative voters in order to fully tap the potential of the Republican constituency. It is Palin's task to mobilize these voter groups.

Palin does take away the possibility for McCain to argue against Obama's lack of experience. On the other hand – and this seems to be McCain's new strategy after the Republican National Convention – he can, with her help, present himself as a true reformer who will clean up Washington. Populist attacks on the liberal media and “the establishment”, which Obama is classified as being part of, are favourite tactics in this context. Interestingly the candidate of the Republican party, which has been in power for the last eight years, has taken up the 'change' mantra. It remains to be seen in the race whether the McCain campaign will be able to get away with this identification, or whether Obama and his team will be able to convince the public that McCain is actually just more of the same, that he stands for another four years of Bush politics.

The key topic of this election for the Americans though is undoubtedly the state of the economy. The real estate crisis, the crisis in the financial markets, rising unemployment and gas prices are far more important for most voters than the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Until now this has always been seen as an advantage for Obama, who, according to surveys, voters believe is more competent on economic issues. He accordingly places great emphasis on these topics. However, since the Republican National Convention McCain has not only caught up overall in the opinion polls – at the moment he is slightly ahead –, he was also able to close the gap with Obama on the economy considerably.

One of McCain's advantages is his image as a strong commander-in-chief. In light of the recent confrontations and especially the Georgia crisis, he might be able to profit from his traditionally critical view of Russia. “Today, we are all Georgians,” he announced at a campaign event on 12 August. By echoing John F. Kennedy's speech in Berlin, he gave voters the impression that he would defend Georgia against Russia – without, however, explicitly saying so. Each further international crisis before 4 November will definitely improve McCain's chances. Traditionally, the Americans tend to vote conservatively in times of foreign and security policy crisis.

At the moment it is impossible to make any serious predictions about the outcome of the election. Surveys show a neck-in-neck race that will likely continue to the very end.

III. Special features of the election campaign

One special feature of this year's presidential election campaign is that, going against the conventional cliché, in both parties it was not the candidate with the largest personal assets and the support of the party establishment who succeeded, but instead unusual characters. At the beginning no one was counting on an unconventional Republican like McCain and Obama as the first promising black candidate to succeed. Neither fits the distorted picture of American politics in many parts of the world. American democracy has once again proven that it has the power to constantly reinvent itself and awaken new excitement for shaping politics, which has also caught on in Europe and won new understanding for the US.

At the same time, campaign donations are playing a bigger role this time around than ever before in American history. Both parties have likely raised funds well over one billion US dollars, whereas in 2000 and 2004 all candidates combined raised 335 million and 671 million dollars respectively. Money therefore continues to play a crucial role and forces the candidates to invest a lot of energy in fundraising. So far Obama has been incredibly successful in this area. Through his activists and the Internet he was able to collect many small donations, nearly twice as much money as John McCain. That's why – in contrast to McCain – he turned down federal campaign financing, which limits candidates to spending a maximum of 84 million dollars. Obama can raise much more through private donations.

The significance of the Internet in this year's US election campaign is a trend which could also catch on here and can contribute to increased citizen participation in the election process and the public debate. In the US the candidates' websites and associated functions like email, blogs, video podcasts and social networking sites reached an unusually high number of generally younger voters. During the primary race the Obama campaign in particular was able to use the Internet powerfully to mobilize its own supporters and collect donations. In a given month, two to three million people visited Obama's website. Republican John McCain's site had a far lower number of users.

Religion always plays a large role in American election campaigns. While the Democrats neglected the Evangelical Christians in the 2004 presidential elections and paid the price, in 2008 they are making a greater attempt to reach out to this voter group. Obama handles the prevailing religious mood in America very effectively through his pastoral oratory style, which noticeably resembles Martin Luther King's. However his earlier affiliation with the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago also led to problems for him due to the controversial comments made by Pastor Jeremiah Wright. In terms of his sociopolitical views, John McCain is certainly not the dream candidate for Evangelical conservatives, but having Sarah Palin at his side compensates for this.

IV. What can we expect from a new US administration?

What will the election of Obama or McCain mean for Germany? There is no doubt that the German population would clearly prefer Obama as President. With approval ratings of 80% and more, the Germans are even ahead of the European average of around 70% as well as the 49% preference for Obama shown in a recent worldwide survey conducted by the BBC in 22 countries. The Europeans hope an Obama victory would mean more of an improvement in transatlantic relations than if McCain were to win. Incidentally, Americans also believe this would be the case.

The Federal Government has rightly taken a neutral position.It could work well with either of the candidates up for election in November, and it is also in Germany's interest to be able to cooperate with whomever the American people choose as their next President because the US is our most important partner outside of the EU. John McCain is the candidate with greater foreign and security policy experience and a more distinct interest in Europe. Obama is currently Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs, but he is hardly familiar with Europe. So far European issues have not played a role in the election campaign because, in contrast to past decades, we no longer live at the centre of a crisis region. But both candidates promise a greater readiness on the part of the US to reach out to its partners, respect their views and take multilateral institutions more seriously than was the case under the Bush administration. For these reasons many Europeans have great expectations riding on the elections and hope for a fundamental realignment of American foreign policy, particularly under a President Obama.

However, the differences between the candidates in terms of their foreign policy goals are less clear than many Europeans think. Despite all the affirmations in favour of multilateral cooperation, no US administration will give multilateralism the same status as, for example, the German government does. Most importantly the US Congress, in contrast to our Basic Law, will not automatically recognize international law as taking precedence over national law. This would contradict not only the constitutional tradition, but also the United States' status as a world power and its political culture. Neither McCain nor Obama will rule out the use of military force when it comes to the enforcement and defence of key American security interests. In the future as well, if necessary, this can happen without the support of American allies.

Greater differences between Republicans and Democrats can be seen in their policies on Iraq. The Democratic congressional majority tried repeatedly to get President Bush to set a date for the withdrawal of US troops. Early on, McCain argued for a troop surge in order to contain the violence in Iraq and stabilize the government in Baghdad. McCain is currently still for a “continuation of the efforts to win the war in Iraq,” whereas Obama advocates gradually withdrawing troops and handing over responsibility to the Iraqis. In the end it will be the concrete military situation and the stability of the Iraqi government that will determine a timetable for troop withdrawal rather than the declarations of intent made during the campaign.

A controversial transatlantic debate on relations with Russia didn't just begin with the conflicts in Georgia this past August. John McCain and other Republicans call for a common, hard line of the West towards a Russia they regard as revanchist. The G-8 should become “a club of leading market democracies again”. McCain advocates bringing India and Brazil into the group, but at the same time calls for Russia to be excluded and China to be kept out. This would be a serious slap in the face to two global powers and would be a shift away from Washington's policy up until now of including Beijing and Moscow as much as possible in the international community. Obama speaks more carefully about Russia. But in his party too the anti-Russian voices are getting louder. There is major disappointment over the internal developments and foreign policy posture of a resurgent Russia.

American politicians and media reacted strongly to Russia's disproportionate intervention, as Germany also viewed it, in the conflict between the government in Tbilisi and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have declared their independence in the meantime. Europe and namely Germany, which spoke out at the last NATO summit against a concrete timeline for Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance, has been accused of having a position that is too Russia-friendly, presumably due to a large dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. In my opinion the presumption that German policy towards Russia is determined by our interest in natural gas is just as narrow-minded and wrong as the view that American policy towards Iraq is determined only by oil interests.

We Germans should criticize the authoritarian tendencies in Russia and the sometimes confrontational behaviour towards its neighbours. But the EU and Russia are direct neighbours and will remain in many ways dependent on one another. For instance, Russia's help is critical in efforts on disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as in stabilizing crisis regions. That is why despite all the justified criticism of Russian rhetoric and behaviour, Germany will continue to be advocating a rational and cooperative relationship with Russia.

Concern in the US about the comebacks of Russia and China found its expression in the new foreign policy concept of a “League of Democracies”, which has been suggested by McCain and also by advisers to the Obama campaign. The core idea is to develop a new institutional framework for the democratic countries of the world in order to enable them to cooperate more easily in dealing with international security problems. This would be especially important in cases where the United Nations is paralyzed due to its decision-making processes. Behind this concept is the idea that legitimacy, especially when it comes to using military force, stems less from the broadest possible approval within the international community than from the moral “correctness” of the decisions and the “internal legitimacy” of democratically-elected governments. However, it remains to be seen which criteria will be used to decide on who can join the new alliance. And doesn't such an idea just provoke new tensions in the world by excluding states like Russia and China from crucial decision-making processes? Their support in coping with global problems like climate change is absolutely essential. Should this project find its way into the government policy of the new administration, the Europeans will have a need for discussion and the chance to voice opposition.

Additionally, a very critical view of Iran is widespread among Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Representatives of both parties view the depiction in the National Intelligence Estimate from December 2007, which claimed Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme in the autumn of 2003, as problematic or even as playing down a threat. They are calling for the administration to push its allies to put more pressure on Iran. This would include sanctions against foreign firms who have business relations with Iran and further financial sanctions against Iran. Germany has already considerably restricted its formerly close economic relations with Iran. We should be aware, however, that the new administration in the White House, supported by Congress, will very quickly issue calls for further economic and political pressure on Iran.

Further pressing international problems and regional crises remain on the transatlantic agenda under the new US administration: the common fight against terrorism, a fresh start in the efforts on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, the realization of a peaceful order in the Middle East, the geopolitical and economic challenge presented by emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil, and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the Balkans, in Africa and Asia. The transatlantic agenda will definitely not be boring in the next few years. Both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have indicated their willingness to include their allies to a greater degree in finding solutions to such conflicts.

But at the same time they will also insist on, from the US point of view, fairer burden-sharing. There will be new calls for Germany and other European states to take on military and civilian tasks in crisis regions. Especially with regard to (southern) Afghanistan, American pressure on Germany and the EU to do more for common security will likely grow stronger. We can also expect the new US administration to approach its allies with the request for contributions to civil stabilization in Iraq. In light of the considerable scepticism in the German public regarding deployment of the German armed forces abroad, this will mean – especially in the run-up to the next Bundestag election – a big challenge for the Federal Government and the Bundestag.

But aside from the classic foreign policy issues, Europe and the US can cooperate even more closely in many other areas. The transatlantic economic partnership, which secures millions of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, offers great opportunities especially in times of a weakening world economy and turbulent financial markets. The EU and the US should strengthen the agreement reached in the spring of 2007 to foster greater cooperation within the framework of the Transatlantic Economic Council. Disputes over details like the EU's ban on importing chlorine-treated poultry should be set aside as quickly as possible. Increasingly protectionist reflexes among the American people and in Congress are also harmful to trade relations. These concerns are embraced above all by the Democratic base and therefore also by Barack Obama, while the Republican McCain continues to defend free trade.

I hope that we will also be able to intensify our cooperation on a number of classic domestic challenges. This includes issues like affordable general health insurance (45 million Americans are uninsured), dealing with economic transformation, including the loss of industrial jobs to low-wage countries, the erosion of purchasing power in the middle class, and problems with poverty and wage dumping within our prosperous societies. Here we can also learn from each other and should, above all, avoid doing damage to one another through protectionist measures.

Of great importance for the future of both our societies are the issues of climate protection and energy security. While the EU set ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gases, the Bush administration originally had a hard time with the issue. It opposed a binding cap on CO2 emissions, as long as emerging economies like China and India which produce an ever-increasing share of the emissions, were not required to take on a share of the responsibility. But meanwhile the discussion has changed in the US, too. A number of states, including California and Florida, have passed their own laws on capping greenhouse gases and promoting renewable energy. Barack Obama as well as John McCain have spoken in favour of stronger measures for climate protection, providing a positive starting point for European-American cooperation after the elections. Federal Minister Steinmeier, along with his cabinet colleague Sigmar Gabriel and American guests, will kick off a new transatlantic initiative on this important issue for the future at a conference in Berlin at the end of September.

On all of these issues, the transatlantic partnership remains the necessary precondition for solving problems. Of course in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world many other partners also have to be included, yet without the close cooperation between the US and Europe no progress will be made in dealing with the pressing problems of our time. For the Europeans the US is still the most important partner, and American politicians also know that there is a greater overlap of interests and values with Europe than with any other region of the world. The upcoming presidential and congressional elections offer a good opportunity to breathe new life into this partnership. There will still be different opinions and foreign policy approaches between Europe and the US. Americans and Europeans should learn to remain calm in the light of such differences and to develop common, constructive solutions out of them.

Karsten D. Voigt has been the Coordinator of German-American Cooperation since 1999. This contribution expresses his personal opinion.

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