Two key figures at the G20 Summit in Seoul, U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, share an important trait: They are widely respected abroad — and under pressure at home. What explains this peculiar state of affairs? And what endeavors might they pursue once their political careers have drawn to a close? The Richter Scale explores.
In a world where many a political leader is disliked on the home front, rare is the case of a person who garners more respect, even admiration, abroad than he or she does at home. And yet, that is precisely the case with the U.S. President as well as the German Chancellor.
Angela Merkel has been in power for five years — and it is possible that voters are beginning to feel that they have seen too much of her or that they are no longer taken with her way of governing.
Across the Atlantic, Barack Obama has been in office not even for two years yet — and his political wings were clipped significantly in November’s midterm elections.
In Obama's case, the voters' displeasure cannot be based on not having done enough in his still relatively short time in office. He has been quite an activist president, tackling mega-issues such as health care and financial services.
While his legislative activism has been maligned as “socialism” by some, the real source of his poll decline is rooted in the uncertain outlook for the U.S. economy — and especially the disconcerting situation in the job market.
Never mind that it would take the modern equivalent of a Hercules to turn that situation around in a heartbeat (read: a mere 18 months). However, Americans do expect miracles from their presidents, especially at times when they feel rather desperate personally.
In contrast, Ms. Merkel's poll decline is not related to Germany's economic situation. Unemployment has not worsened despite the global economic crisis. In fact, it is reaching lows not seen in many a year. Instead, people feel that she is not leading strongly enough.
Leading too strongly from the front, of course, is exactly what Barack Obama, her U.S. counterpart, is getting blamed for. Both must feel rather jinxed, especially considering that, measured by results, they have been quite — or at least somewhat — successful.
On an international comparative basis, neither Merkel nor Obama needs to be concerned about comparisons with lackluster leaders like Sarkozy or Berlusconi — or the never-ending parade of Japanese prime ministers who are passing into the dustbin of history faster than anybody outside Japan has been able to memorize their respective names.
The truly astounding point, though, is that Merkel and Obama are very popular outside their respective countries’ borders. Outside the United States, President Obama is widely still seen as a beacon of hope — and a potent personification of whatever people elsewhere have appreciated or admired about the United States as the global supremo.
True, there are exceptions to this rule. Mr. Obama's standing in the Arab world has deteriorated sharply for two reasons. First, as a consequence of his unwillingness, or inability, to get the Israeli government to move toward any meaningful agreement with the Palestinians.
And second, rightly or wrongly, as a result of the perceived U.S. emphasis of viewing its relationship with the Muslim world primarily as a matter of combating terrorism.
In Angela Merkel's case, her lack of clear-sighted leadership during the recent Greek crisis has tarnished her previous standing as the highly regarded go-to/get-things-done person at the top of the European table.
And while it is undoubtedly true that she has lost some luster in that regard, her reputation in the rest of the world — whether on the G-20 stage or in capitals that truly matter, such as Beijing — is better than ever.
She is seen as highly competent, personable, down to earth and outright humble. The first two points are shared by Barack Obama. He is, however, not regarded as humble, but is rather known for a certain regal bearing by friend and foe alike.
Both Merkel and Obama must be wondering about this curious state of affairs. Which points to one logical conclusion: Given that both of them are still quite young, what about their political futures outside their own borders?
Is it inconceivable that, if Ms. Merkel feels Germany is not the right place for her any longer, Herman Van Rompuy might step aside and make room for Europe's first woman president? Merkel or not, such a move is long overdue.
By the same token, if a worldwide popular election were to be held for the next UN Secretary-General, Barack Obama would win in a landslide. Alas, that is never going to happen since it is widely believed to be impossible for a former U.S. president to take the UN's top post.
But why not? Becoming Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would be a rather trite accomplishment by comparison. Plus, John Roberts is not leaving the court anytime soon.
The Clinton/Blair route of doing international goodwill work via foundations is so… well, Clinton and Blair. Not exactly an innovative path for Obama to take.
Another charming option — say, the next chairman of the Gates Foundation — is similarly foreclosed, given that Bill Gates is only a few years older than Obama.
So why not become UN Secretary-General? Obama is a born negotiator and in-chambers smooth talker and bridge builder. There is no better platform for the erstwhile community organizer than taking his game to the next level — and running the UN with aplomb, chutzpah, skill and charm.
Even the Chinese might allow for that to happen, in exchange for a Chinese head of the World Bank in this go-around. And India and Brazil might vote for it, if they were offered a veto-type seat on the UN Security Council is exchange.
If and when either of that happens, the current peculiarity — two accomplished political leaders admired abroad and increasingly disliked at home — might be brought back into balance: Merkel to Brussels and Obama moving to New York.