Up until a few weeks ago, Robert Habeck was one of the most popular politicians in office: he orchestrated debates and came across as human and authentic. Now he fails important decisions supplemented by rhetorical embarrassment. Does the economics minister lack the substance?

We Germans are pretty good at dissecting leaders. Sometimes it’s the little things, where critics accuse the “excited media” of overdoing it and making elephants out of mosquitoes. When Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer missed a carnival joke, it heralded the end of her time as CDU leader. Measured by this, the Federal Minister of Economics, Robert Habeck, who was very successful with voters until a few weeks ago, has recently smashed quite a lot of porcelain.

So far, his communication style has been well received by the electorate, but it seems that good craftsmanship is of little use if the content is not right. Just like yesterday evening in Sandra Maischberger’s talk show: His thesis was that a wave of insolvencies would not necessarily roll through Germany if bakers could no longer sell their rolls due to the significantly increased energy prices.

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The experienced moderator gratefully accepted this steep template and followed up until critical journalists finally headlined that Habeck is apparently not entirely clear what bankruptcy is: “And then – we see that everywhere now, that in shops that say it are dependent on people spending money, flower shops, organic shops, bakeries are part of it – that they have real problems because there is a reluctance to buy. And then they’re not insolvent, automatically, but they might stop selling,” he initially replied.

When Sandra Maischberger reminded him that an entrepreneur would come close to delaying bankruptcy, Habeck didn’t seem to be in the saddle for many viewers when he said: “You would become insolvent if you made bigger and bigger minuses with your work.”

When the moderator asked further questions, Habeck showed no sovereignty: “I would like to point out that there does not have to be a wave of bankruptcies automatically. But it may be that certain transactions are no longer profitable and are then discontinued. Maybe they’ll be picked up again later, that’s possible. Well, that’s not a classic bankruptcy.” A few weeks ago, Habeck was exposed as “Homo Laber” in the satirical show “heute-show”.

The communicative mishap comes at the wrong time for him. In spontaneous media polls as to whether readers trust Habeck to get Germany through the economic crisis well, over 90 percent voted no. Such results can also be explained by technical errors in his ministry, which, by the way, he made significant changes to his staff when he took office. Until recently, Habeck was considered a kind of “substitute chancellor”, the one who was actually supposed to be in the chancellor’s office. Those times seem long ago.

The way in which he introduced and later communicated the gas surcharge has recently drawn strong criticism: From October, most gas customers will pay 2.4 cents per kilowatt hour in solidarity to save importers in need from bankruptcy.

But then it turned out that a number of companies are benefiting that definitely do not need help. He later announced tweaks, but the kid had fallen into the well. SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil accused the Economics Minister of “technical errors”. His explanation that no one really knows the gas market does not inspire confidence in people.

Habeck recently had to admit that his liquid gas deal with Qatar has burst, at least for the time being. In March he was with a large entourage in the Persian Gulf to negotiate a replacement as quickly as possible when Putin kept turning off the gas tap. But now it became clear that the Qataris would have decided differently.

There may be logistical reasons and to be fair there are deals with other states such as the United Arab Emirates. But if Habeck were a manager in business who is judged strictly on the basis of his effectiveness, he would have to be blamed for the Qatar project as a failure.

Habeck’s repeated announcement that there should be six million heat pumps in Germany by 2030 also backfired. At the Great Heat Pump Summit, 500,000 new appliances per year were considered feasible, meaning that by 2030 there would only be 4.5 million heat pumps in operation.

So the number six million disappeared from the summit’s final paper. And experts also doubt the number of 500,000 that should be there from 2024: Currently, only 150,000 new heat pumps can be installed in Germany and the number of skilled workers is very limited.

Is Habeck acting the way the electorate wants? From his point of view not: He argues that there was currently a majority for the continuation of the three nuclear power plants and that he would have approved it anyway. Instead, he switches one off completely and has two put on standby for possible emergency operation. It remains to be seen whether potential Greens voters in Lower Saxony, where the ballot papers will be cast on October 9th, might still like the fact that the Emsland nuclear power plant, which is based there, of all things, will be switched off.

Among experts, the nuclear power issue is the most sensitive issue for the cohesion of the traffic light coalition. The insipid compromise is unlikely to bring peace to the discussion. The procedure shows that the Economics Minister has not yet found an answer as to how he can get out of his great dilemma: on the one hand to try everything to keep electricity prices low – and on the other hand not to expect too much of his party and his convictions in view of the liquid gas compromises with Qatar or Canada or the longer running times for coal-fired power plants.

In addition, there is the irony that his main opponent is in his own coalition: Finance Minister Christian Lindner, for example, is vehemently demanding that the nuclear reactors run longer until 2024. And the FDP leader has Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ear, the relationship between the two is considered to be good very good. In the SPD, many call Habeck a sweet talker without substance, and the parliamentary group leader Wiese a good-for-nothing.

And in times of crisis, old embarrassments and stories inevitably come up again. That he, like his then co-Green leader Annalena Baerbock, had approved a tax-free corona bonus of 1,500 euros in 2020. Or when he accused the then government of making mistakes in the commuter allowance in 2019, apparently without knowing that it was granted regardless of the means of transport.

At the moment there are probably only a few politicians who want to swap places with him. The Green Federal Minister of Economics wanted to force the turn to sustainability and had big plans. Then it rained crises and the need to compromise. It is questionable whether Habeck can maintain his popularity ratings in voter polls. The jokes are always certain: Word games like “Habeck under power” or “Habeck in the stress test” are currently an integral part of the language.

The article “Replacement Chancellor? Habeck dethrones himself with bogus solutions and glitches” comes from WirtschaftsKurier.