The Right Choice for the Elysee: Obama
As French voters hesitate between two mediocre choices, an ideal candidate for the Elysee Palace is staring them in the face. Barack Obama is everything a French president should be -- and the incumbent is not. An OpEd piece in the leading French daily Le Monde, January 30, 2012.
Like many self-important journalists, I maintain a wall of photos of myself smiling alongside various politicians, business leaders and other scalliwags. My favorite is a photo of me with former President George H.W. Bush. Not only did he once have the grace to shake my hand in front of a photographer, but Bush père is also known for a singular achievement: He is the only American president in the past two decades to lose his bid for re-election. I keep his image around as a reminder of the transitory nature of political popularity.
After watching Nicolas Sarkozy last Sunday night on one of the nine television channels he evidently commandeered – the man is unavoidable – I began thinking about adding a picture of the French President to my wall of oblivion. Perhaps I can get him to shake my hand while there is still time. After all, to my American eyes Sarkozy appears ready to follow the elder Bush into the mists of history.
I am not talking about the polls that show Sarkozy unlikely to be re-elected. As the late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously observed, a week is a long time in politics. Sarkozy still has three months to reverse his fortunes, and I would not wager money against him, or any president running for re-election. In America, seven of the last ten sitting presidents who sought a second term have won, as have Sarkozy’s two immediate predecessors. Voters often prefer the devil they know over the one they don’t.
Sarkozy’s problem is that his fellow citizens know him all too well, and the man on display Sunday night was a caricature of Sarko at his worst: jittery, combative, condescending, self-pitying, defensive and ill at ease. Somehow, he forgot the first lesson of television interviews: Always sit on the tail of your jacket so its collar does not creep up the back of your neck. I watched in fascination as Sarkozy’s shoulders fought a pitched battle with his jacket, which at times appeared ready to overtake the chief executive’s head.
They do things differently in the U.S. An American president almost never sits down with as many as four inquisitors at a time on live television. (True, French TV journalists are known to be deferential to their presidents, but Sunday’s feisty crew seemed determined to efface that reputation.) Instead, American presidents give rare press conferences, at which they stand imperiously at a podium and choose which questioners to recognize. If an American chief executive wants to hog all the TV channels, he makes a speech before a joint session of Congress. No questions allowed.
A good example was President Barrack Obama’s recent State of the Union address, which has many interesting parallels with Sarkozy’s Sunday TV discourse. Both events were excuses to unveil vote-getting proposals. Both were delivered by presidents whose prospects for re-election are highly uncertain. Both contained schemes that will probably never be enacted: Obama’s “Buffet rule” on sur-taxing millionaires, Sarkozy’s “Tobin tax” on financial transactions. Sarkozy, however, wins the prize for cluelessness: Americans would never tolerate a president who urged them so fervently to emulate a country with whom they have gone to war twice in the past century. The French no doubt find Sarkozy’s newfound Germanophilia troubling as well.
Like Obama, Sarkozy made only vague references to his political opposition, though for both men their rivals represent a major electoral advantage. Sarkozy may be annoyingly aggressive, but -- to Americans at least – the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande is something worse: boring. He makes the uncharismatic Mitt Romney, Obama’s major Republican challenger, look like a rock star.
I sometimes wonder why the French put up with the meager electoral choices before them, when a far superior candidate is staring them in the face. I am talking about Barrack Obama, who would make a splendid French president. Like many of France’s best chief executives – and unlike the incumbent -- Obama is articulate, prestigiously educated, literary, calm and, a major requirement for French presidents, tall. (He is also quite used to “cohabitation” with an opposition-dominated legislature.) The timing is not perfect, but Obama might soon be looking for a new job.
Many Americans would add that Sarkozy might make a good American president as well. He has had success in reducing the size of government, an issue so popular in the U.S. that both Obama and his Republican opponents embrace it. Sarkozy has also impressed Americans with his willingness to lead the Western intervention in Libya and to pressure Germany’s Angela Merkel into rescuing the euro.
In addition, Sarkozy has a quality Obama lacks: a willingness to plunge into the tohu-bohu of retail politics. Obama is faulted even by his Democratic supporters for being too reserved, too distant, too reluctant to twist arms and knock heads together. Sarko shows no such reticence.
Besides, for Sarkozy the timing might be fortuitous. The first round of the French elections is April 22. Americans do not vote until November 6. Sarkozy deftly eluded questions Sunday about plans to announce his candidacy. With the French public apparently reluctant to grant him a second term, perhaps he has a Plan B. I could use a new photo for my wall.