Is compromise a sign of weakness

US journalist: Compromise has become a sign of weakness

Bettina Klein: We reported in detail this morning: The big drama seems to have been averted, a compromise found in the US debt dispute in Washington. At least that is what the leaders of both parties have agreed on. Now the whole thing still has to find the actual approval of both chambers of the Congress, and this - all protagonists hope - will be the case by tomorrow at the latest. I want to talk to Frederick Kempe about it now, he is President of the Atlantic Council, a think tank, a think tank in Washington. He was deputy editor-in-chief of the "Wall Street Journal". At the moment he is traveling as an author and therefore in Germany, where he is presenting his book, which was also published in German a few days ago: "Berlin 1961 - Kennedy, Khrushchev and the most dangerous place in the world". It is about the Cold War and the conditions that led to the construction of the Wall - an event that we will of course remember this year, in these weeks: 50 years later. Good morning, Mr. Kempe!

Frederick Kempe: Good morning, Ms. Klein!

Small: You dedicate a good part of the book to the then US President Kennedy - a brilliant and inexperienced politician, you write - similar to the incumbent, who is currently going through a domestic political crisis that could easily lead to global political boundaries, or could have resulted. What kind of figure has President Obama made in the past few days and weeks?

Kempe: Not a very good one. It gives the general direction, but only very roughly. Others edit, fight the details, for example Vice President Biden did a lot of this fight. Obama calls this "leading from behind", which I consider to be a contradiction. And with Libya, he's doing the same with NATO. His enemies at home and elsewhere see this as weakness and indecision. But it may well be politically wise: its target group in the 2012 election campaign will be middle-class voters. And those voters will embrace what happened yesterday, what happened last night.

Small: I don't know if they've read a few newspapers this morning. I would like to talk to you about a sentence or two that I found. An example from the Süddeutsche Zeitung: "America has no place for reconcilers - the soothing nature of the president is now interpreted as softness and weak leadership." Would you agree with the United States?

Kempe: I don't know who should be more to blame for the current situation: the President or the Tea Party. One is not leading enough and the other does not want to compromise. But as Winston Churchill once said so beautifully, America will do the right thing in the end when it has exhausted all other options. What I find bad in Washington - I've spent many years in Washington, now and then - is that the situation is more polarized than I have ever experienced or experienced. The different parties have diverged so far. But the largest party in the country has become the Independents. More than 40 percent of America's voters are independent, they are angry. And they actually want the politicians to come together sooner. So it is a very interesting political situation in the country at the moment.

Small: But you also speak of a strong polarization. Now that's relatively typical for America. But one could also say: It has never been as polarized as it has been at the moment in this debt dispute. Would you say that this is a worrying development, or is it something that traditionally belongs to the United States.

Kempe: It's part of it, and America commutes too. But in this situation ... there has always been good personal interaction in the past. And the MPs right now have very little to do with each other in Washington, socially, for example. In the past they played golf from time to time or the children went to class together. They definitely knew each other. And compromise wasn't a bad thing, as you said before, a sign of weakness. Now it has become a sign of weakness, so it is a different situation, also from a historical perspective.

Small: It also seems to be about fundamental political questions in the background: How much government, how much welfare state should there still be in America? A question that is generally answered differently than in Europe. Now some say that the tea party movement is going further than ever and is threatening to shift the entire statics of the state structure by accepting the collapse and opposing any compromise. Is it that threatening?

Kempe: I think it's not that threatening. What is true is that Republicans won last night. You changed the debate completely, changed it in the States, and of course that came from Tea Party. There is also very, very strong economic uncertainty in the States. Nine, ten percent unemployment, little growth, 1.3 percent in the quarter. Profits have increased at companies, but that doesn't come with jobs. But most Americans don't believe that government jobs come from them. And I think the Tea Party won various types of support. And the question for me is whether the tea party has gone too far and whether the voters will cancel the tea party in 2012 and go to the middle.

Small: Because they went too far?

Kempe: Yes, because they went too far. And if they go to the center, it seems that Obama has a good chance because the Republicans still haven't found a good candidate that the center can actually represent.

Small: Washington’s often lamented self-blockade, Mr. Kempe, was again lamented in these weeks: Many citizens in the USA have expressed their anger about it, on blogs, on Twitter and similar platforms. An anger that, by the way, also fed the tea party. But doesn't the development of the last few hours also show that something can be changed after all?

Kempe: Yes, they certainly made a difference, and they certainly made a difference, something that has always been very strong in America, and that is a mistrust of the government. And the government has grown, also under or especially under George W. Bush. Republicans see this as a completely different situation because hardly in the past has a Republican president brought such rapid growth to the government. The question for me is: what happens to those 40 percent of voters who are independent? Can Obama win that? Can the Republicans win that? Or is there a real possibility for a third party?

Small: In the "Presseschau" today we also quoted press comments in the program from Deutschlandfunk, which sounded really gloomy when looking over the Atlantic. An embarrassment has not been averted, but the United States is still embarrassed after all this back and forth. One has the impression that the USA is on the brink of an abyss. How would you describe the standing of the United States in the world at the moment, in the situation?

Kempe: I am also of the opinion that although the impending insolvency has been averted, a lot of damage has been done anyway. A lot of confidence in America has been lost, even if the rating agencies don't downgrade the US, the Chinese and others have downgraded the Americans. And they are looking for other alternatives for investing dollars, and they are looking for such alternatives very intensely. I believe that this damage is not just short-term, it is long-term, and it is a double crisis in the West if you include the crisis in the euro zone.

Small: The assessment of Fred Kempe, author and president of the Atlantic Council. Thank you for talking to us, Mr Kempe!

Kempe: Thank you, Ms. Klein!


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