2012 will see two high impact presidential elections: in France, Nicolas Sarkozy will try to win another five year term while in the US Barack Obama will have to convince people that he still has what it takes to lead the country.
In both countries, the pre-campaign circus has been dominated by one strong figure that everybody expects to run and supposedly presents a tremendous challenge to the incumbent. In France, FMI Director and former finance minister Dominique Strauss Kahn was the focal point of attention while in the USA, Sarah Palin was the name on everybody's lips.
At first glance, the über smart economist (who once dreamt himself a Nobel Laureate) and former finance minister of one of the world's largest economies has little in common with the former mayor of Wasilla who famously failed to name a single newspaper she read on a regular basis.
But both personalities have some things in common:
1- They both have a big problem with a certain fringe of the electorate. In order to conquer the presidency, both Palin and DSK will have to first seduce members of their own party and then go on to show a majority of the global electorate that they are the men or women for the job. Clearing that double hurdle might be tough... Palin is strong with Tea Partiers and Republican voters but scares the hell out of pretty much everybody else. Instead of polishing her edges to appear more presidential, she has spent the last few years creating controversies and is now more polarizing a figure than ever. And then there are the numerous gaffes and blunders that make the prospect of her sitting in the oval office quite scary to say the least... Strauss Kahn on the other hand is widely respected by the general electorate but has a problem with his own party. This is not new, DSK (despite having imagined the 35 hour work week) has always been somewhat of an alien in a Socialist Party that regularly flirts with the far left and still officially supports ludicrous policies such a 200€ check for people who can't afford holidays away from home and a 1 500€ minimum wage. In the last primaries, DSK was trounced by Segolene Royal and his chances don't look any better this year: the left wing of the Socialist Party is calling the shots right now with personalities such as Benoit Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg (whose essay about "real equality" is a fine piece of leftist demagogy of the type only France is still capable of producing) gaining importance at the expense of more moderate types such as Manuel Valls. Plus, party leader Martine Aubry exhibits all the sings of somebody who wants to run and even former party chairman François Hollande (whose recent weight lose generates more noise than his ideas) is making a comeback. All in all: winning the primaries will not be easy for the man from Washington.
2- They are the opponent incumbents dream of facing. A Palin victory in the primary would be the best thing Barack Obama could dream of. It would virtually ensure him to stay in the White House for another 4 years. Primaries are about seducing the base, the general election is about shooting to kill but using a big gun. Palin is absolutely incapable of doing that. She is too controversial to have a broad appeal, too much of a loose canon to manage a good campaign and, quite frankly, way too dumb to challenge Obama. (To those who would like to read about what Palin actually looks during during a campaign, I recommend the excellent book "game change" by Halperin and Heileman). DSK is a very competent technocrat but a terrible campaigner. He lacks Sarkozy's charisma and bravado and even if he were to miraculously win the primaries, he would never be 100% supported by the party and his campaign would greatly suffer as a result. The man also has quite a few skeletons in his closets. He was recently at the center of a sexual harassment scandal at the IMF and admitted to cheating on his wife with a Hungarian born IMF economist. You can count on Sarkozy's teams to dig out as much dirt as possible about him if he were to enter the contest.
"I know who you did last summer"
3- They have recently tripped. Recent months have not been good for Palin. Her reaction to the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in which 6 people were killed was testimony to her total incapacity to act as commander in chief. Now to be sure I hate the way the American left has politicized the affair and sought to use it to discredit the Tea Party movement but that is no excuse for Sarah Palin's terrible speech in which she accused the liberal media of stirring up hate 3 minutes after saying that Fox news could not be held accountable for the actions of disturbed individuals and offended pretty much anybody with a little culture by using the term "blood libel" (that originally refers to the fabricated legend that Jews use the blood of their own children during rituals). Even conservatives are starting to fear that she could ruin their camp's side of winning back the White House and the fact that she had her own reality show and that her daughter participated in "dancing with the stars" hardly helps... DSK has another problem. After months of favorable opinion polls and positive media coverage he is entering the tougher part of the long road that leads to the campaign. People are now questioning his motivations and speculating about what his program and style of government would be. Attacks against him from his own party are also getting tougher with other potential candidates unwilling to let a man they see as a Washington sell-out steal the limelight.
4- They have much to loose if they fail. DSK loves power and he presently enjoys plenty of it. At the IMF, he managed to give a declining institution some of its former luster. The IMF has played a very important role in managing the aftermath of the financial crisis and DSK now plays in the major league of world leaders. Rumors even have him replacing Jean Claude Trichet as head of the ECB. Is he willing to give this up and tour rural France for 6 months, pretending to give a damn about everybody's problems and patting cows' behinds (a key part of every presidential campaign in France) for a very uncertain result? Sarah Palin is currently making millions giving terrible speeches, selling books and sharing her Alaskan daily life with the nation on TV. She is also part of Fox News' team of pundits. If she she runs and things don't turn out as expected, you can count on her to not just fail but to crash and burn in an explosion of controversies and ill-though out declarations. I believe that Palin played a major role in torpedoing the Mc Cain campaign but she survived the failure by blaming it all on Mc Cain's advisors and campaign managers. If she fails again in 2012 she will have nobody to blame but herself (well she will certainly find other people to blame but this time the public won't buy it). Currently, both DSK and Palin rely on some kind of star power. DSK is seen as being more competent and somewhat above the pack while Palin is supposed to be this maverick hockey mom, an outsider that can take on the liberal clique and the so called "lame stream media". If they run and fail to win the election, their credibility would greatly suffer as a result and their future career in politics would be jeopardized. So they have a tough choice to make...
"To run or not to run?"
So 2012 will see two interesting elections but will we see these two interesting candidates participating? I'll answer that question later :)