Senator Barack Obama will travel to Berlin later this month to demonstrate his popularity abroad and present himself to the world as the post-partisan, post-Washington paralysis candidate. The fact that Germans are receptive to Obama’s candidacy is interesting given the difficulties that German leaders face in speaking honestly about their own country’s challenges.
Bob Herbert reminds us that Barack Obama’s popularity, particularly among young people, can be attributed in part to Obama’s apparent ability to bridge this gap. He quotes Obama:
“The time has come for a president who will be honest about the choices and the challenges we face, who will listen to you and learn from you, even when we disagree, who won’t just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know.”
Much of the excitement about Obama, and the recent outcry over his alleged shift to the center, stems from the belief among his supporters that the Illinois Senator offers a level of candor and pragmatism that has been missing from American politics.
I recently returned from Germany, where I participated in a delegation of young political professionals sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an affiliate of Germany’s classical liberal Free Democratic Party. A series of meetings with local, state, and federal political and business leaders revealed a striking similarity between the current political climates in the United States and Germany: both countries’ political leaders are struggling to persuade their populations to enact reforms necessary to compete in the 21st century.
The clearest manifestation of this gap in Berlin is the government’s inability to address its looming pension crisis. As in many wealthy countries, Germany’s population is aging and will have to rely on a shrinking population of workers to support expanding group of retirees. Surprisingly, even young people are averse to cutting pensions. A recent Economist report on this issue found that fully 90% of voters supported a recent pension increase and declared
…the problem for Germany may not be pensioner’s democracy but plain old democracy.
Given the extraordinary opposition to reducing benefits, even the present conservative government, which includes the two largest political parties, refuses to touch the issue.
The related issue of immigration also exposes Germany’s struggles to tackle its most pressing challenges. Despite a falling population, Germany has enacted a series of measures in recent years — including language tests — that make it more difficult for foreigners to migrate to Germany and for immigrants already living in the country to become citizens. While the government bas restricted immigration, large German corporations including Siemens and the SMS group, struggle to find qualified workers.
A third issue is Germany’s role in the world and the degree to which it will shoulder the responsibility for maintaining world order and protecting Western interests. While Chancellor Merkel has tried to take steps to move her country in a more activist direction — including increasing the defense budget and reforming the army to emphasize overseas deployments — the public remains skeptical for historical reasons as well as a belief that the government’s money is better spent trying to achieve “social justice.”
It remains to be seen whether Germany, the United States, and other prosperous democracies can produce leaders who can effectively articulate solutions to their nations’ respective challenges. Barack Obama’s op-ed “My Plan for Iraq” in today’s New York Times, offers hope that he could be that kind of leader.
— Ben Katcher