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Barack Obama’s first official trip to Berlin was short on substance but rich in symbolism. For a few hours in the searing summer heat, his relaxed charm and eloquent idealism triggered memories of the heyday of “Yes we can,” before drone attacks, Prism and realpolitik.
What a scorcher! And no one felt it more on this big day in Berlin than the people gathered on Pariser Platz square. Some of the invited guests didn’t even show up because of the sudden heatwave engulfing the capital. Some 4,000 sweated it out in the blazing sunshine until Barack Obama finally arrived. Behind the bullet-proof screen, the sweat dripped off his brow, so he took off his jacket, threw it down behind him and rolled up his sleeves. “We can be a little more informal among friends,” he called out to the crowd.
Of course, it was the searing heat that prompted him to abandon the dress code. But there was also something symbolic in his gesture. The message was, “We know each other; we don’t need to get all dressed up when we meet.” And the subtext was: “All this talk about a cooling in trans-Atlantic relations is nonsense.”
Barack Obama went on a charm offensive during his first official visit as president. He knows that Germans had enormous expectations of him when he was elected president for the first time four-and-a-half years ago. And he knows he has dashed many of those hopes. He’s not the big savior who has brought peace to the world. He hasn’t closed the Guantanamo prison camp yet. And the recent revelations of the NSA’s Prism Internet surveillance program have severely dented people’s faith in his civil-liberty credentials. Obama wanted to repair some of the damage — and that was evident throughout this day in both his gestures and words.
His speech was peppered with grand references to freedom, security and solidarity, the values he associates with the trans-Atlantic partnership. “Our alliance is the foundation of global security,” he said. In fact, he addressed so many issues that one ended up wondering what he left out. He called for new efforts to combat global warming, defended his drone program and said he still intended to shut Guantanamo. He praised the progress made in the fight against terrorism, and he demanded equal opportunities for his “gay and lesbian friends.”
Nuclear Disarmament Initiative
Obama only went into specifics on the issue of nuclear disarmament, where he announced his initiative for a sharp reduction in strategic nuclear weapons. It fitted well with the setting — after all, he was standing on the front-line of the Cold War. But one couldn’t help shrugging one’s shoulders at it. After all, the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia don’t pose the most pressing threat to world security any more. And his initiative may peter out anyway. Russian was quick to pour cold water on it. But Obama won’t mind. He made his announcement — apart from that, this day was all about conveying the right symbolism and atmosphere.
On Wednesday morning, he put his arm around German President Joachim Gauck. The pupils of the Berlin’s John F. Kennedy international school were delighted when he engaged in small talk with them. “Hey guys,” he greeted them. “How are you?” and “Good to see you.”
“It was simply great,” said 12-year-old Sean, and his friend Harun next to him couldn’t stop beaming. Gauck was also impressed by the visitor. The two presidents had a very open conversation, with Obama explaining the Prism program rather than just brushing aside any objections to it.
Later on, it was the same story with Chancellor Angela Merkel. When he held a joint news conference with her at midday, he wouldn’t stop talking. He spent minutes giving elaborate reassurances that ordinary emails weren’t being sifted through, and that encroachments on privacy were all limited by court-approved processes. But he also nodded politely when Merkel said there was a need for “proportionality and balance.”
Exhaustion in the Evening
The chancellor, the head of the conservative Christian Democrats, appeared a bit tense. Perhaps the issues on the agenda — Afghanistan, Syria and the drone wars — were too serious. But she still offered a small demonstration of trust by addressing Obama with the informal “Du” rather than the formal “Sie” in German. There are no doubt differences between the two, but they weren’t going to get in the way of harmonious longer-term relations. Right afterwards, at a private lunch between the two in the Chancellery, the mood eased even more. At the big speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Merkel exuded a vibe that was far more casual. “I welcome you among friends,” she said, smiling. Even Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who has been fiercely critical of Obama on account of the Prism program, waved an American flag.
The government in Berlin is fully aware that nice snapshots with the US president are like gold dust for the chancellor just three months before the September 22 general election. She’ll also likely have no trouble getting over the fact that the US president took time to meet with her challenger. Obama spent 40 minutes speaking to her rival for the Chancellery, Peer Steinbrück of the center-left Social Democrats, a party roughly equivalent to the US president’s Democrats. The meeting took place in an office right next to the Brandenburg Gate, and sources close to Steinbrück said the atmosphere was relaxed. They were also reportedly pleased by the fact that Obama came to the meeting very well prepared.
Steinbrück also received an invitation to Wednesday night’s dinner, where events took on a slightly more formal air. The red carpet got rolled out at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace, where the chancellor threw a banquet in honor of the president. More than 200 invited guests enjoyed a performance by cellists with the Berlin Philharmonic and a meal prepared by Michelin-starred Tim Raue, a German celebrity chef.
As Merkel spoke at the dinner, Obama was already wiping sweat from his brow again. When she greeted him at the door, the president explained how he’d had to change his shirt during the day. Now he thanked her for a “warm reception” in both a figurative and literal sense. You could see the sense of relief on Obama’s face that the day had gone very well, but it also betrayed exhaustion after his packed 25-hour visit. It’s just about to end though. Air Force One is waiting at Tegel Airport to take the president and his family back home to the US after dinner — in an air-conditioned cabin.