It is hard to imagine who would want to be a politician at the moment. But the job still lures ambitious people like almost no other. Yet in most cases the job seems either hopeless or thankless. And often both.
Sitting in the White House, President Obama must be scratching his head wondering how to inject some health into the economy. Prime Minister Papandreou of Greece must feel in an even tighter corner as his government wrestles with the dire consequences of years of economic misrule. And it is not just the Greek people who are watching what he does next. The rest of Europe and all the world’s major economies have a stake in what happens in Athens and are eager for their opinion to be heard.
His is a real test of leadership. Often great leaders are defined by taking the right decision in difficult circumstances. George Papandreou does not have the luxury of taking the best course of action. He has to take the least worse.
Should Greece stay in the Eurozone and risk crippling the single currency and its banking system or ditch the Euro, risk destroying the Greek economy even further and quite possibly achieving the same outcome as option one anyway? In Germany, the economic logic points in one direction – rescue the Euro – but the political consequences might be too high in a country growing less enthusiastic by the day about its role as the Eurozone’s banker of last resort. A shrill chorus of sceptics along Europe’s fringe in Britain and Scandinavia are unhelpfully joining together to explain how they always knew the whole single currency project would end in tears.
Leaders deal with stress in different ways. Some find an inner calm at the heart of the storm and start to see and think more clearly at moments of acute anxiety. In 1588, Sir Francis Drake lit his pipe and finished his game of bowls when the Spanish invasion fleet was spotted in the English Channel. Sir Winston Churchill drank brandy in bed when Britain was most at threat from a Nazi invasion in 1940. By contrast, the Emperor Nero is reputed to have played the fiddle and sang songs while dressed in theatrical costume during the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64.
So as most of Europe’s leaders fret about another financial crisis and others exploit the situation for cheap political gain, the Chinese premier arrived in Britain this weekend like the Seventh Cavalry riding over the hill in the nick of time. Whether or not Wen Jiabao can provide the economic intervention needed to steady nerves and rebuild confidence is not yet clear. But in these strange times where emotional stability seems to take precedence over economic methodology, he might just be the knight in shining armour we need.