From Pen-Pusher to Chancellor Candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier's Reluctant Path into the Spotlight

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democratic Party's chancellor candidate and veteran bureaucrat, never wanted power. Over the course of the election campaign, he has transformed himself from a dull pen-pusher to something approaching a passionate speaker. But is it enough to convince Germany's voters?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier gestures during a campaign rally in Stuttgart on Sept. 17, 2009.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier gestures during a campaign rally in Stuttgart on Sept. 17, 2009.

Foto: MICHAELA REHLE/ REUTERS

"Please welcome the future chancellor of Germany," says the announcer. "Yes we Fraaank!" shout his supporters in response.

It seems ridiculous to pretend as if the man walking into the room, Social Democratic chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is going to be the future chancellor of Germany, when his party is currently polling at about 22 to 23 percent of the vote. How can someone who doesn't exactly ooze charisma be compared with US President Barack Obama? And can German voters truly expect "change" from a candidate who has held senior positions in two administrations over the last 11 years, and whose last hope of becoming chancellor is based on a shaky alliance with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democratic Party?

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Frank-Walter Steinmeier - A Different Light on the Candidates

Foto: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

Rarely have a chancellor candidate's prospects of winning a German election race been this slim. Instead of asking themselves "who will be chancellor?" the real question Germans are asking themselves in this campaign revolves around the sort of coalition government current Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to form to remain in office.

Difficult to Get to Know

Steinmeier has been a stalwart candidate, a man who has stoically, almost serenely, made his way through the campaign, sometimes even surprising audiences on market squares and in television debates. In the end, he was a better candidate than his friends had feared and his rivals had hoped.

Nevertheless, most citizens still don't really know who Steinmeier is, this man with his indefatigable claim to be the next chancellor. He has made it exceedingly difficult to get to know him.

The "Merkel experiment" proved to German citizens that even shy, awkward people could become chancellor. The "Steinmeier experiment," on the other hand, goes a step further. It is the first candidacy of a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat, a man who is somehow expected to transform himself overnight from a dry, top-level government official into a fiery leading candidate.

Perhaps this is the sort of experiment that simply cannot succeed the first time around, at least not in a business whose most important quality is the speed at which things change.

Slow but Steady

One of Steinmeier's favorite books is called "The Discovery of Slowness." In the novel, author Sten Nadolny attempts to dispel the notion that slowness is a bad thing. His protagonist, John Franklin, is a man whose character traits stand in the way of his desires, particularly his dream of becoming the captain of a big ship. Franklin operates at his own speed, which happens to be incredibly slow, and as a result he seems inconspicuous and has no charisma to speak of. He has the reputation of being dry and incapable of entertaining his fellow human beings. When he talks, it's as if he were hammering nails into a wall.

Nadolny, leaning across the table and looking around, as if to see if anyone is listening, says that he isn't sure he should be saying this, but Steinmeier reminds him of his character John Franklin.

This is by no means a slight, from Nadolny's perspective. Franklin seems to be as unsuited for the role of a sea captain as Steinmeier is for that of a campaigner. And yet, several years later, when he finally makes it onto a ship, with a bit of luck and great deal of perseverance, his shortcoming suddenly proves to be a strength.

Through diligence and hard work, Franklin manages to compensate for his natural deficits, his lack of agility and sparkle -- what politicians would call the Schröder factor, referring to former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He has attempted to make up for his slowness by being more accurate, thorough, conscientious and efficient than others. In the end, he and his crew sail off to the ends of the earth.

Will Steinmeier manage to pull off the same feat?

'I Am Not Gerhard Schröder'

During a panel discussion in Berlin, the moderator, wanting to switch to a different topic, smiles warmly at the candidate and says: "There are personalities in politics who behave egocentrically in their thirst for power. You don't seem to be this type of person."

"What you probably mean to say is: You are not like Gerhard Schröder," says Steinmeier, wrinkling his brow. "All I can say to that is this: I am clearly not Gerhard Schröder. In that sense, it's a silly question, but it's one that I have to address, unfortunately." It is a rare moment of agitation for a man whose feathers are not easily ruffled.

The former chancellor's presence has overshadowed Steinmeier's campaign. Fellow members of his Social Democratic Party (SPD), citizens and journalists all compare him to Schröder, and in most cases unfavorably. It is one of the many oddities of this candidacy that Steinmeier's main political mentor, ironically enough, has created expectations for politicians running for office in Germany that Steinmeier cannot fulfill. Schröder set a pace that is too fast for his protégé. In his campaigns, the former chancellor was consistently snappy, spontaneous and impulsive, and even though his appearances seemed boorish at times, he was always a dynamic campaigner. More than just a candidate, Schröder was an entertainer.

Steinmeier is less skilled at this, and the expectation that he ought to be isn't doing him any good. Germans have gotten used to Merkel's dullness, but Steinmeier is a different story. This summer, whenever he has tried to energize his party by reminding voters of the SPD's remarkable comeback in the 2005 race, he has consistently heard the same bitter response: But that was when we had Gerd!

A Satisfied Bureaucrat

The SPD candidate in this year's race is a man who comes from the shadows of politics. He spent seven years working for Schröder during the latter's governorship of the state of Lower Saxony, and another seven years as head of the Chancellery when Schröder became chancellor. He has always been adept at managing policy, but has never been called upon to sell it.

Steinmeier has in fact become reconciled to being a member of the silent class of politicians, a content bureaucrat -- a role to which he had aspired in the first place. He derived his sense of self-worth from his influence, not his prominence.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Frank-Walter Steinmeier - A Different Light on the Candidates

Foto: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

His driver would take him to the Chancellery early in the morning, where he would be greeted by a stack of files. Until he became foreign minister four years ago, Steinmeier did not give any on-the-record interviews. In an age when image promises more success in politics than content, Steinmeier is a difficult, perhaps even unreasonable candidate.

His worst moments come when he attempts to ignore his shortcomings and entertain his audience. At one campaign event, he was giving a speech in a room in which the windows had been shadowed to block the bright sunlight. "Ladies and gentlemen, I can assure you," he said, pausing for a moment, "it's lighter outside!" It was intended as a joke. Steinmeier looked at his audience, expecting a response.

Nothing happened. No one laughed. Not even a smile. Instead, Steinmeier laughed -- far too loudly -- at his own joke, making the situation even more awkward.

Branded a Misfit

Sending Steinmeier into a parliamentary election as the SPD's top candidate is tantamount to casting an amateur actor in a leading role on a major stage. The question is whether he will be given the time he needs, as a late starter, to catch up and become adept at the things he hasn't needed in his political career until now.

Patience is a rare virtue in the fast-moving world of politics. It is a world whose pace has greatly accelerated in recent years, in which politicians are constantly seeking to undermine the statements made by other politicians or "tweeting" each other into submission on the micro-blogging Web site Twitter, and where there is no longer time for quiet contemplation. Anyone who, like Steinmeier, refuses to move at its pace is quickly branded a misfit.

Within German political circles in Berlin, there are quite a few individuals who only reveal their feelings and emotions when they are in small groups, but Steinmeier is their prototype. This preference for privacy is one of his many security measures, protecting him against injury, but it also creates a public image inconsistent with his self-perception. "I don't see myself as dry at all," says Steinmeier.

The question is whether it would be such a bad thing for Steinmeier to be considered dry? Would that make him a less effective chancellor than such outgoing politicians as former Chancellors Helmut Kohl, Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder? And hasn't Merkel demonstrated that it's possible to run a government with relatively little emotion?

The Importance of Emotion

Until now, Steinmeier's speeches have been everything but rousing. This is the flipside of his austere and bureaucratic nature. Without passion and pathos, Brandt would never have been able to convince a majority of voters of the wisdom of his famous Ostpolitik efforts at rapprochement with the Soviet bloc. And German reunification would probably have taken a different turn without Kohl's historic exuberance. Great political achievements rarely succeed without emotion.

Every government has its share of levelheaded experts. They are the ones who occupy the various strata of an administration, the bureaucrats. But more is required of the head of a government. He must be capable of generating enthusiasm among the people, not to keep them entertained but to win them over. Otherwise democracy can wither away.

Germany has already spent four years of sobriety under Merkel. It seems unlikely that much of that would change under Steinmeier, even though he has recently made an effort to remove his protective shield for brief moments.

Long Pauses

To distinguish himself from Merkel and her similar nature, Steinmeier made the question of strong leadership a central theme of his campaign early on. Ironically, Steinmeier himself doesn't necessarily come across as someone who likes to make decisions.

When journalists ask him a question, he often pauses for so long before answering that they ask the question again, in the belief that Steinmeier may have forgotten them or simply not heard them the first time.

This slowness stems from the desire not to make any mistake, a fastidious form of conscientiousness typical of many civil servants. Steinmeier has a tendency to bolster his actions with as many security measures as possible. This wariness and desire to control events can protect against harm, but they can also create problems.

Steinmeier's Trial by Fire

Caution had a seat at the table when, in the fall of 2002, a group of senior government officials met at the Chancellery to discuss the fate of the then-Guantanamo inmate Murat Kurnaz. The closed-door session, chaired by Steinmeier, included the heads of Germany's intelligence agencies and the Federal Criminal Police Office.

Although the Americans had not officially offered to release Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen and German resident who had been wrongly detained and tortured while in US custody, there were clear signals that he would soon be released. The group's task was to decide whether Germany would be willing to accept Kurnaz if Washington did decide to release him from Guantanamo.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Frank-Walter Steinmeier - A Different Light on the Candidates

Foto: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

The attendees, including Steinmeier, decided to refuse entry to Kurnaz. It was a deliberate decision not to allow him to return to Germany, and it didn't exactly improve his chances of being released. Kurnaz was to spend another four years at the Guantanamo detention center.

Steinmeier is a compassionate person and not a cynic. He is not interested in hurting people, and yet he tends to err on the side of the safer, low-risk decision.

As a result, Kurnaz became a dark stain on his career. The man, held for so many years in a cage in Cuba, continues to haunt him, like some bearded ghost from his former life.

For Steinmeier, the Kurnaz decision meant facing a fact-finding commission and many questions from the media. His office manager believes that his handling of the Kurnaz case was Steinmeier's trial by fire, a vital step on his path to becoming a politician. Steinmeier, he says, realized that being confronted with such a situation is not necessarily detrimental. "By the time it was over, he was a different person."

Fateful Decision

A second decision made in 2002 also helped to shape the politician that Steinmeier is today. On Dec. 19, a Thursday evening, the telephone rang in Gerhard Schröder's house in Hanover. Schröder and his wife had invited friends over for a Christmas dinner.

"Gerd, something terrible has happened," said Steinmeier, who was calling from Berlin. Schröder withdrew to his study, where he could smoke. "Don't ask me why, but someone has leaked my document, and it'll be in the paper tomorrow," Steinmeier continued, sounding contrite.

The next morning, the headline in the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel read: "Chancellery Plans Radical Reforms." The paper quoted a strategy document drafted by a small team headed by Steinmeier. The document described measures that "were considered taboo only a few months ago." It contained all of the key elements of the controversial social system and labor market reforms that would later be enacted under the title Agenda 2010.

But Steinmeier wasn't telling his boss the full truth on that evening shortly before Christmas. The document, as some of Steinmeier's closest colleagues say today, had not been leaked to the newspaper by some unscrupulous staff member, but had been deliberatively given to it. Steinmeier had apparently wanted to create a fait accompli by generating public expectations which it would be difficult to back away from. He had pinned down the chancellor in an attempt to force his hand. Schröder was familiar with the group's work, but he had not known about the document yet.

"Don't worry," Schröder said at the end of the conversation as he promised to support Steinmeier. Less than three months later, Schröder presented his Agenda 2010 plans to the German parliament, the Bundestag.

It was an ambitious program, the biggest reform effort in decades. In a sense, however, Steinmeier's boldest move also explains his current predicament.

'You Betrayed the Workers!'

At a campaign appearance on the market square in the eastern city of Jena, Steinmeier is explaining the consequences of the financial crisis. "No more of the same!" he calls out to his audience. Then a man sitting on a bench in the fourth row stands up.

"You people are to blame!" the man shouts. He is as loud as Steinmeier, even without a microphone. The man, who is very fat, is wearing shorts, gray socks and brown sandals, and he describes himself as a disappointed Social Democrat. He is so angry his head is practically glowing.

"Good that someone here knows that," Steinmeier shoots back in response. He has become punchier in his repartee over the course of the campaign.

"You people were the ones running the country the whole time!" the man shouts, taking his seat again.

A little later in his speech, Steinmeier attacks Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, claiming that he intends to expand the number of people in temporary employment.

"I can't believe it," the man in the audience shouts. "What a lie! Who introduced temporary work in the first place? It was you people! You betrayed the workers!" There are millions of Germans who agree with the overweight man in Steinmeier's Jena audience. But most of them have stopped voicing their displeasure publicly. Instead, they have either joined the Left Party or are staying home -- and that includes staying home on election day.

The Problem of the Past

The SPD has suffered enormous setbacks since Steinmeier joined Schröder at the Chancellery. The party has lost the confidence of its base, lost a third of its members and lost countless positions in state parliaments, city councils and county councils. Rarely has a major political party contributed to its own demise in such a short time as Germany's SPD.

Steinmeier is both a beneficiary and a victim of this development. Without the SPD's crisis, which has also thinned the ranks of the party's senior leaders, he would never have become the party's leading candidate in this election.

But as a candidate, his biggest problem is his own past. It pursues him at every stop in the current campaign. The unpopular Hartz IV welfare reforms, the decision to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, the growing gap between rich and poor, the deregulation of the financial markets -- these are all things that Steinmeier and the SPD have either encouraged or allowed to happen.

If Steinmeier, the author of Agenda 2010, were to lead his exhausted and at times neurotic party into the opposition, it would at least represent the closing of a circle.

Slim Hopes of Becoming Chancellor

By now, Steinmeier himself has backed away from his reforms, which doesn't exactly boost his credibility.

As a candidate, he has avoided mentioning the word "agenda" throughout the entire campaign. Instead, he points out that "this much-discussed policy" has produced respectable results, which is true. He refuses to allow Merkel to claim full credit for the drop of 2 million in the unemployment figures during her administration. Nevertheless, Steinmeier seems almost embarrassed to discuss his Agenda 2010.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Frank-Walter Steinmeier - A Different Light on the Candidates

Foto: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

This suggests that the biggest problem in his candidacy is not Steinmeier himself. The real problem is the state of his party and the peculiar coalition on which he is pinning his hopes. A so-called "traffic-light" coalition of the SPD, the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party represents his only chance of becoming chancellor, but the prospects for such a coalition are poor, because the FDP has already ruled it out.

Besides, Steinmeier's traffic-light coalition would be a quixotic endeavor, because it would force him to bring together bitter rivals the FDP and the Greens, each of whom sees the other as its main competitor. After having demonized the FDP during his campaign, he would then have to placate the party, whose leader, Guido Westerwelle, is about as popular among Social Democrats as Ivan the Terrible.

The De Facto Head of Government

That said, Steinmeier would probably not be a bad chancellor. He probably knows more about what it takes to be chancellor than any other politician who has ever campaigned for the office. He could step into the position immediately and already know the ropes.

"Schröder was often a bit of a mess during his chancellorship," says one former close associate. "He went through phases of great apathy and lethargy. At those times, Frank was the de facto head of the government."

With Agenda 2010 and his more recent "Germany Plan," Steinmeier has demonstrated that he is capable of developing strategies for the future. If he were elected, Germans would not face the prospect of having a leader who lacked ideas or was prone to knee-jerk reactions.

Even Merkel appreciates Steinmeier's work as foreign minister, a post in which he has been reliable without trying to steal the spotlight. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, Joschka Fischer, he never even attempted to solve the world's most pressing problems. Instead, he was content to the play the role of the amiable diplomat, helping out whenever he could.

As foreign minister, he helped to shape mainly Germany's external energy policy and its cultural programs abroad, helping to promote the network of Goethe Institute cultural centers around the world. Most of all, however, he gave the Foreign Ministry, Germany's biggest government agency, a sense that it was needed once more. If he does end up leaving that position soon, the staff will be left above all with the memory of a nice boss.

The Me-Too Chancellor

In Freiburg, the sun has already set by the time Steinmeier is introduced on the city's lake-side stage not only as foreign minister and chancellor candidate, but also as "our vice chancellor." The latter role is one that he has only gradually grown into. When he took over the position from Franz Müntefering in the fall of 2007, he seemed unsure of what to do with his new responsibilities. It was only after the financial crisis began that he discovered his inner vice chancellor.

He is standing in the glare of a theater spotlight, trying to explain to his audience what he has done to combat the crisis. He mentions the government's investment program for local authorities, the "cash for clunkers" scrapping premium aimed at boosting car sales and the government bailout program for automaker Opel and for many small and mid-sized businesses.

"We worked our fingers to the bone, and we didn't get any help from the CDU," he says.

"The CDU has become a me-too party, with a me-too chancellor," he says, noting that Merkel simply adopted all of the proposals the SPD had put forward to combat the economic crisis.

The me-too segment is his favorite part of the script. It's slightly exaggerated, and yet there is a kernel of truth to Steinmeier's argument. He did in fact demonstrate leadership qualities during the months of the crisis, taking a more proactive role than Merkel. However, he was also quicker to spend billions than the conservatives were, because spending money is one of the Social Democrats' traditional strengths.

If Steinmeier were to become chancellor, it's unlikely that he would replicate Schröder's desire to reform the welfare state and labor market. When the Agenda 2010 reforms were first drafted, Steinmeier's goal was to make the government more streamlined, more efficient and more capable of taking action. Today, he emphasizes a strong, slightly chubby state. He is nothing if not flexible.

Oddly Obstinate

As chancellor, Steinmeier would probably be a better listener than his predecessors. In the past few years, he has often invited groups of experts to his office, in an effort to arrive at academic solutions to the country's problems.

He also used this approach to develop the Germany Plan, the only real plan in a campaign that has been short on ideas. In addition to bringing in experts, he also dispatched members of his staff to conduct research throughout Germany. The result was a 67-page document that practically oozes industriousness and painstakingly lists the industries in which large numbers of new jobs could be generated in the future.

It took his advisers a long time to convince Steinmeier that announcing 4 million new jobs would radically increase the amount of attention his strategy would get. He would have preferred unveiling the paper without mentioning the number, and he was also strongly opposed to its catchy title, "Germany Plan." He found the name too presumptuous, and to this day he refers to the document as "my paper titled 'The Work of Tomorrow.'" It's an attitude that has prompted his advisers to ask why the man is so obstinate.

A Product of the Old Germany

Like Schröder and Fischer, whose SPD-Green coalition government he managed to hold together for a long time, Steinmeier is a typical product of the old West Germany. In the summer of 1968, while students were taking to the streets in Germany's major cities, Steinmeier was living in the village of Brakelsiek in North Rhine-Westphalia, where he was born. He was 12 years old at the time.

After finishing high school in the north-central region of Lippe, Steinmeier briefly considered studying architecture. But then he decided to attend law school in the western German city of Giessen, a safer choice in every respect. He spent 14 years living in a shared apartment in Giessen, eventually writing his dissertation, snappily titled "Tradition and Prospects of Government Intervention to Prevent and Eliminate Homelessness."

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Frank-Walter Steinmeier - A Different Light on the Candidates

Foto: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

He flirted with the life of an academic. Perhaps he would still be sitting in a comfortable professor's office in Giessen today if his friend Brigitte Zypries, who is now Germany's justice minister, hadn't convinced him to move to Hanover -- the realm of Gerhard Schröder -- at the age of 35. To this day, Steinmeier is the first to admit that his friends once characterized him as someone who was reluctant to "venture out into the hostile territory of real life."

It was long an apt description of his approach to life. Even today there are those who wonder whether so much power should rest in the hands of a man who never aspired to it.

Showing His Tough Side

The most important decision on Steinmeier's path to the candidacy for the chancellorship was made by someone else, Gerhard Schröder, who saw to it that Steinmeier was named foreign minister in the fall of 2005. For Steinmeier, the move into the Foreign Ministry was the first phase of a transition from civil servant to politician. His thoughtful, even-keeled personality was perfectly suited for the diplomatic service. He became popular, as foreign ministers invariably do. This popularity was the strongest argument in favor of his candidacy for the position of chancellor.

The second-most important decision was the question of the candidacy itself. At a time when the media was already certain that he would run for chancellor, Steinmeier was still agonizing over the decision. When he was finally convinced, he was anxious to avoid being seen as subordinate to then-SPD Chairman Kurt Beck. To assert his independence, he coerced the beleaguered Beck into accepting his archenemy Müntefering as campaign chairman and let it be known that he was determined to secure the party's nomination as chancellor candidate. Even though Steinmeier could not have expected Beck's fall from grace, he tacitly accepted it. During this phase, Steinmeier demonstrated his tough side for the first time.

After he had secured the party's official nomination, Steinmeier allowed a considerable amount of time to pass before actively taking on his new role. For a long time, he seemed more interested in serving as foreign minister than as the SPD candidate, before eventually acquiring the necessary confidence and demonstrating the first tentative signs of aggressiveness.

Sparks of Passion

At the end of this long process, Steinmeier stands in front of 7,000 people on Munich's Marienplatz square and says: "Good evening, Munich." He is smiling, and it almost seems as if he has been looking forward to the campaign appearance. It is Wednesday of last week, with only 11 days to go before the election.

Anyone who witnessed his first stabs at addressing voters earlier this year will hardly recognize the candidate today. He speaks in short, comprehensible sentences. He makes his hands into his fists and slams them against the lectern, almost as if he were itching for a fight. It's true that Steinmeier is still no Schröder, but he is finally emitting the first sparks of something that might be called passion.

He has come a long way on his path from civil servant to the SPD candidate for Germany's highest political office, and he has learned a lot in the campaign. At times, he even comes across as a real chancellor candidate.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is a man who needs time. Like John Franklin, the sea captain in his favorite book, he moves at his own speed. But a single election campaign is probably far too short.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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