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Germany, Europe and the presidential election

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The majority of Germans view the United States, the “land of unlimited opportunities”, with a lot of sympathy. But their perception of American politics is more problematic.

Brigitte Weiffen
5 November 2012

If Germans were entitled to vote in the United States presidential election, Barack Obama would be reelected by a wide margin. According to a survey conducted by the polling firm Emnid on 11 October, 87 per cent would cast their ballot for Obama, while only 5 per cent would support Mitt Romney. A majority of 82 per cent believe in the victory of Obama, whereas only 11 per cent expect Romney to prevail. Apparently, much of the euphoria that reigned in the country in July 2008 when a crowd of about 200,000 gathered in Berlin to hear Obama’s major foreign policy speech during his first presidential campaign still lingers. One third of the German population credits Obama with an improvement of German-American relations. To the question of whether Obama disappointed them, only 16 per cent answered in the affirmative while 79 per cent indicated that Obama did not in fact disappoint. Commenting on these results, the former US ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, stated that President Barack Obama gives the Germans a feeling of stability, security and solidarity and that the German perception of the US is highly positive at present thanks to Obama.

Germans still remember the tensions around the contested US invasion of Iraq, then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s arrogant depiction of Germany and France as “old Europe”, and President George W. Bush’s missionary speeches justifying his War on Terror. Their disapproval of the current Republican presidential nominee might therefore to a large extent be rooted in the bad reputation of the Republican Party. Due to constant negative media portrayal of the Tea Party Movement and individual figures like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the German public associates the Republican Party mainly with right-wing politicians of the ideologically-extreme, culturally-conservative, religiously-fundamentalist or populist sort. Conservative fanaticism of the type that periodically erupts during anti-abortion or pro-death penalty manifestations alienates German observers. The fierce opposition of Republicans against Obamacare is hardly comprehensible for the citizens of the country that first invented social security programs almost 130 years ago. In turn, Obama’s struggle against social inequality caters to the social-democratic mentality of the German populace.

Aside from the negative image of his party, Germans view Mitt Romney with unease not only due to his former occupation as an investment banker, his affluence, the tax evasion allegations raised against him, or his strange religious affiliation. His changes of position on issues like abortion or healthcare are frequently referred to in the news and make him appear as opportunistic and unprincipled. Not much of his ideas concerning foreign policy have found their way across the Atlantic, which is why it looks as if this policy field has been a low priority for him. Germans are aware of the fact that the future US administration will have a huge impact on foreign policy issues that figure high on our agenda, such as the future of Afghanistan after the troop withdrawal, the consequences of the Arab Spring or the relationship with Israel in the face of Iran’s nuclear program. Romney’s apparent lack of a global vision beyond his general call for a firmer demonstration of American strength on the world stage therefore creates some uncertainty, and therefore Germans keep on placing confidence in Obama’s capability to forge peace, despite his flawed human rights record in the Middle East or Guantánamo.

It is obvious that what Germans are actually worried about most are the problems in our immediate neighborhood – above all, the European financial crisis. US domestic politics and the economic and social situation in the United States have received less media coverage in Germany recently than when the mortgage crisis hit in 2007. At the same time, China draws more and more attention as a result of its growing importance as a trading partner. Nevertheless, while Chinese domestic politics is still a matter for specialists, the US presidential elections attract interest from a wider public. Months ago, major newspapers and TV channels already offered elaborate coverage of the Republican presidential candidates and the mixed balance of Obama’s presidency, and have since then continued to report on the nominees, the campaign and the presidential debates. 

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

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