Sky-high expectations

People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad - all this and mu

This was not the first American election I watched on foreign soil. Last time around (also when I was in London, as a matter of fact), Senator John Kerry sank beneath the undertow of a swift boat smear campaign and his own weighty rhetoric as America re-elected George W Bush by a slim margin.

So I had a mild case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as I watched the results come in last night, wary to the last. It took McCain’s gracious and humble concession speech for the reality to sink in that America had just elected Barack Hussein Obama as the next president.

Obama carries on his shoulders a heavy burden and sky-high expectations. He inherits a global financial crisis, two faltering wars, global climate change, a trillion dollar national debt, a possible recession and America’s tarnished international reputation.

Republican pundits snidely remarked that he walked on water and parted the Red Sea, but with the situation as it stands in America and around the world, President-elect Obama may indeed have to perform such feats.

In his acceptance speech, delivered to an expectant crowd of thousands, he was careful to mention the possible setbacks and sacrifices ahead, preparing the nation for the hard road ahead.

His election, no doubt, represents the making of history and the breaking of barriers, but the true test for president-elect Obama will come when he takes office in January, replacing a deeply unpopular and unsuccessful president. People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad, after the devastation of Katrina, after the frustration of Iraq and Afghanistan, after the humiliation of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. People are looking to him to epitomise the ephemeral American Dream, where a global citizen with a Kenyan father, brought up in Kansas and Indonesia, educated in Harvard and refined on Chicago’s streets is able to step into the spotlight on the Washington D.C. stage.

Ironically, if Senator John McCain had run this campaign like the candidate he was in 2000, he might have had a much greater chance at defeating Obama. That bipartisan, dignified and “straight talking” McCain made a brief appearance when he conceded the election to Obama last night, silencing a booing crowd. The last desperate months of the Republican campaign saw some ugly crowds shouting everything from “socialist” to “terrorist,” but pragmatism prevailed over partisan politics as scores of voters chose Obama’s message of change and bipartisanship rather than the Republican party’s politics of fear.

President-elect Obama humbly acknowledged his triumph, saying, “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.” He indirectly addressed those booing in the McCain crowd, saying, “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”

Having run a successful campaign on the effervescent messages of hope and change, Obama will require people to maintain those emotions through his tenure in office. Americans will need to store away the hope left over after his victory and bring it out to savour when the already difficult road gets tougher, when the current dream melts away to the reality of next year. President-elect Obama has charisma, intellect and an undisputable eloquence, but only next year will show whether his ideals and eloquence translate to decisive action in the highest office.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit