Lone Wulff New German President Fails to Hit His Stride

Christian Wulff has only been German president for a few weeks, but he's already stumbled several times, most notably in dealing with Islam critic Thilo Sarrazin. A speech to mark 20 years of German reunification could be Wulff's big chance to show that he can play the role of Germany's moral compass, but other political heavyweights threaten to upstage him. By SPIEGEL Staff.

Christian Thiel / DER SPIEGEL

During a recent visit to the Viking Museum in Haddeby in the far north of Germany, German President Christian Wulff was asked if he would like to shoot at a Styrofoam model of a wild boar. He gave one of his bodyguards his jacket, took a bow and arrow, and then tried desperately to place the end of the arrow on the string and draw the bow. He fiddled and fumbled around with the weapon, without success.

The Viking on duty, who was dressed in felt and suede, couldn't really say what Wulff was doing wrong. Eventually the president managed to string the arrow, but he drew the bow too far back, pulling the arrow tip beyond the bow, whereupon the arrow fell to the floor at his feet. When the president finally managed to shoot an arrow, it landed way in front of the wild boar.

Clumsy Behavior

It was just the latest in a series of recent shots that have failed to hit their target. Whatever the new German president does or says, he never gets it quite right. Shortly after being elected German president -- a largely symbolic position -- at the end of June, Wulff spent a slightly suspect vacation at the luxury home of a businessmen friend of his, Carsten Maschmeyer. Next Wulff expressed himself rather clumsily when speaking about the mayor of Duisburg and responsibility for the Love Parade disaster, where 21 people died in a stampede.

And the way Wulff dealt with the Thilo Sarrazin affair was just as clumsy as his handling of the bow and arrow. As German president, Wulff would have had to decide if the controversial Islam critic should be ejected from his position on the board of the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank. He was saved from having to make a decision when Sarrazin stepped down, but Wulff had already appeared to take sides with ill-judged comments he had made earlier, and he was criticized for his role in negotiations involving the terms of Sarrazin's resignation.

Then there is Wulff's silence. Over the past four weeks, Germany has been embroiled in a massive debate about Islam in Germany and the integration of foreigners into German society. Wulff has yet to make an extensive statement on the matter, even though he had promised to make integration one of his key topics, and despite the fact that as German president he is supposed to be the moral compass of the nation.

Not surprisingly therefore, many people in Berlin's political circles are talking of a false start. The German president's power lies in his words. He can't govern, but he can influence opinion through his speeches. It is by this that he is measured. Words can also be dangerous in politics, however. Use them inelegantly, and you could jeopardize or even put an end to your political career.

Career Politician Wanted

This is precisely what Wulff's predecessor, Horst Köhler, experienced. When, on a return flight from Afghanistan, Köhler said that "military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests, for example when it comes to trade routes," his words were interpreted as meaning that the German armed forces were in Afghanistan to further Germany's interests. This prompted harsh criticism in the media and Köhler decided to resign.

It had been assumed that Wulff would be able to avoid such faux pas. In contrast to Köhler, a former head of the International Monetary Fund, Wulff is a career politician, so his experience should guard him against making awkward remarks. Indeed this experience was seen as Wulff's advantage over the other possible presidential candidate, Joachim Gauck. Gauck, a former East German dissident who was put in charge of the Stasi archives after the fall of the Berlin Wall, had moral authority, but he was not a career politician. After Köhler's misstep, there were concerns about appointing another neophyte to the position. Wulff seemed like a safe pair of hands, albeit one that would produce a rather boring presidency.

Twelve weeks into his presidency, those expectations have been revised. The career politician is having difficulty adjusting to his move from quiet Hanover (where he presided as the governor of the state of Lower Saxony, his previous position) to restive Berlin, where his every word is dissected extensively, and where the responsibilities are so weighty that they quickly become a burden. Both Brandenburg Governor Matthias Platzeck and his counterpart from Rhineland-Palatinate, Kurt Beck, couldn't cope with the change from the provinces to the capital. Both men gave up the post of leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) after a short time in office.

Wulff is nowhere near this point. He is, however, already giving the impression of being afraid of his own words. He is due to give his first major speech on Oct. 3, a national holiday that celebrates the anniversary of German reunification. Such speeches are like a driving test for Germany's presidents. They can either pass or fail them. Just like his predecessor, Wulff is already having problems with certain sections of the media. He feels misunderstood and persecuted. Wulff wants to be a modern president. He is in his second marriage and is proud to have appointed Germany's first ethnic Turkish state-level minister during his time as governor of Lower Saxony.

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