Germany’s Inconspicuous President

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s new president Frank-Walter Steinmeier is struggling to inhabit that difficult role, both an apolitical figurehead and the conscience of the nation.

  • Facts


    • Among many public offices, Frank-Walter Steinmeier served eight years as Germany’s foreign minister, from 2005 to 2009 and from 2013 and 2017.
    • Early this year, he was elected to Germany’s largely ceremonial presidency, in spite of the opposition of Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrat party.
    • The president is elected for a five year term in a secret ballot among both houses of Germany’s federal parliament and representatives of state parliaments.
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A calm, solid center in unquiet times or invisible to the point of irrelevance? Source: RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images

On a visit to the Baltic states last week, Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier was asked a tough question: What did he make of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s possibly becoming the new chairman of the board of directors of Russian oil company Rosneft? Mr. Schröder was the president’s long-time boss and political mentor. “That’s a topic the German president will not discuss,” said Mr. Steinmeier, avoiding any discussion of his long-time boss and political mentor.

Since becoming president in March, Mr. Steinmeier has made a habit of steering clear of contentious topics. In many ways, a tight tongue goes with the job – the German president is a figurehead who is elected indirectly for a five-year term and expected to be above politics. But over the years, the role has also come to include an expectation that the president leads debate on profound national issues, acting as the nation’s conscience and even its pastor.

Mr. Steinmeier’s apparent reluctance to engage in this part of the job has disappointed some former colleagues in the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD. He was foreign minister when the party nominated him for the presidency and maneuvered him into office in what was seen as a clever political coup. The hope was that he would act as a public voice for social democratic values without transgressing the duties of his office. Many in the SPD saw his election as the beginning of a turn against Christian Democracy’s long dominance of German politics, which has seen Chancellor Angela Merkel reign over public life for the past 12 years and the Social Democrats observe from the sidelines as reluctant junior partners.

So far the most radical gesture of Steinmeier's presidency has been to set up a presidential Facebook page.

Mr. Steinmeier has refused to play party politics in his new job. But he has also left many Germans in the dark about his view of the presidency and the role he intends to play. Reviews of his first months in office have been decidedly lukewarm. The consensus is that he is still settling into the office and still feeling his way.

To be fair to Mr. Steinmeier, the presidency, which is a a tough office for anyone, is particularly difficult for him. His party, the SPD, has been a coalition partner of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats for the past four years but is now campaigning against them in the September 24 federal election. Ms. Merkel did not want him in the job. Since his appointment, many on the right of the political spectrum are keeping a close eye on his every word, waiting to pounce on the slightest breach of neutrality. His staff argues the general election is a time when he is well advised to keep a low public profile.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier with Angela Merkel after signing a book of condolence for former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the chancellery in Berlin. Source: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Steinmeier said “democracy” would be the key theme of his term in office. Yet he has shown no inclination to ask tough questions about what democracy means in Germany today. In his first months in office, he could have spoken out about the relation between democracy and inequality – the SPD has made social justice a core issue in its election manifesto. He could also have posed the question that many are now asking: Why are German elections becoming so soporifically dull? Does it have to do with the basic similarity of much of the parties’ rhetoric? But Mr. Steinmeier’s team has vetoed anything smacking of risky political intervention.

The 61-year-old has never been a populist. His political career has seen him largely in the role of a political insider, a dealmaker, a sober, solid and conscientious minister. For many years, he was Mr. Schröder’s right-hand man, his political fixer. His trustworthiness and loyalty are viewed as assets in his current job.

But has something been lost? What does a powerbroker do when he is removed from any real power? Expectations of a political presidency seem to have entirely fallen by the wayside. His closest advisers say he wants to provide an example as a calm, solid center in unquiet times. His doughty seriousness, they suggest, is meant as an antidote to the sweet poison of populism.

That might work and it might not. As Mr. Steinmeier unostentatiously goes about his official tasks as head of state, there is a risk that his unruffled solidity could simply turn into irrelevance. The president’s last stop on a trip to the Baltic states was to visit German troops stationed at NATO’s eastern border. Posing with soldiers in full battledress, he asked photographers if he should also put on camouflage face paint – it would make a great Facebook photo. Everyone laughed, including the president. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed how invisible he already is, even without camouflage.


Moritz Koch has been Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent since 2013. To contact the author:

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