Joachim Gauck has served as president of Germany for 100 days now. Despite his overall popularity, his stance on the eurozone crisis and Germany's military missions have attracted criticism.
As a civil rights activist in the former communist East Germany, current German President Joachim Gauck had to fight for political freedom. It is no wonder then that the 72-year-old former Lutheran pastor from Rostock talks a lot about freedom and the responsibility that it entails. And his message seems to be going down well at home: according to a study published in Stern magazine, 78 percent of Germans are satisfied with Gauck's work up to this point - 26 percent of them "very satisfied."
The positive response is especially good news to those who supported Gauck's candidacy. This includes the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which, together with the opposition, put pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to nominate Gauck.
"We never for one second doubted our decision," said Jörg van Essen, leader of the FDP's parliamentary fraction. "It is important that the president keeps reminding us what freedom means to us."
Gauck's freedom mantra is a balm for the FDP's soul, which sees itself as a libertarian party, but whose approval ratings have been extremely low in recent months.
Just empty theories?
But Albrecht Müller, author of a new book on Gauck entitled "The Wrong President," takes a different view. He claims that Gauck has always been more concerned with the rights of the wealthy than the situation of the low-paid.
"What is the freedom of the young people in [the German state of] Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania who can't find a job, and need to drive to Munich every Sunday evening and back again on Friday?" asks Müller, former head of the chancellor's office under German Chancellor Willy Brandt. "A president needs to understand that today around eight million people in Germany live in circumstances that limit their freedom in many ways."
Despite occasionally attracting this kind of criticism in his home country, Gauck's appearances abroad have only won him praise. His inaugural visit to Poland was seen by many as the start of better bilateral relations, while his trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories brought an overwhelmingly positive media response. "The president carried out his visit with great sensitivity and I think he won many new friends for Germany in Israel," commented van Essen.
In the run up to the UEFA European Football Championships, Gauck also managed to navigate successfully around his first diplomatic obstacles. In protest at the imprisonment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, he decided not to visit host country Ukraine.
Biding his time on euro crisis
Gauck also made a strong statement in April, during his visit to the European Union's institutions, by calling for more European unity. Van Essen considers this to be the right message for Gauck to convey, because despite the eurozone crisis, "Germany cannot retreat into its shell." In this globalized world, Europe's largest economy needs to reinforce Europe's institutions.
But when it comes to Europe's new fiscal discipline, strongly pushed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Gauck has shown recently that he can be more of a hindrance than a help.
Even though Germany's center-right coalition government finally agreed on a euro rescue plan with the opposition last week after long, difficult negotiations, it is still not certain whether the new directives will be adopted. Germany's federal constitutional court asked the president to postpone signing the act to give the court more time to rule on legal claims against it. Gauck cooperated and withheld his signature, leaving a question mark hanging over the ratification of the bailout fund.
According to Müller, instead of delivering "empty words about freedom," the president should be a clear, critical voice on Europe's troubles. He believes that for the countries worst-hit by the euro crisis and reprimanded for it, the lofty speeches about freedom must sound hypocritical.
"Some people are happy that young, well-educated Greeks are becoming available as guest workers in Germany," said Müller, criticizing damning statements about debtor countries Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy. "The president should address this."
Support for the military
Instead, Gauck decided to kick off a very different debate in his first 100 days in office. During his inaugural visit to the German army in June, he praised the military as a "pillar of our freedom." Referring to Germany's foreign missions in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Kosovo, he said Germans should understand "what is demanded of the soldiers and what tasks await them in the future."
For Müller, this is a provocation. He believes that instead of supporting military missions, the president should promote international understanding and the renunciation of violence. This view does not sit well with pro-Gauck politicians like van Essen, who thinks the president was right to emphasize that Germany needs to fulfill its military duties abroad, which sometimes require the use of force.
Van Essen says that Gauck has already developed a reputation as a "bastion of calm" at the heart of German politics. Müller, on the other hand, thinks that Gauck should free himself from hackneyed statements and begin to address real problems like social injustice.
If he fails, Müller argues, Gauck runs the risk of exacerbating the problem of Germany's widening income gap. As far as the author is concerned, that would be nothing less than a dereliction of duty.
Author: Richard Fuchs / ew
Editor: Ben Knight