Obama returns to Berlin, no longer a ‘superstar’

As a presidential candidate in July 2008, Barack Obama was greeted by a massive, adoring crowd for his speech in Berlin. Returning for the first time as president, the venue will be smaller, the expectations lower.
(Jae C. Hong, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Five years ago, when Americans had not yet made up their minds on their choice for president, Europe had. More than 200,000 people crowded the streets of Berlin — a favorite backdrop for U.S. politicians reaching for history — to hear then-candidate Barack Obama promise to turn the page on the unpopular policies of George W. Bush.

“Germany meets the superstar,” the news magazine Der Spiegel proclaimed on its cover.


As he heads to Europe on Sunday for a visit that will culminate with a sequel to that Berlin speech three days later, Obama has been demoted to mere president.

For many Europeans, Obama’s tenure has been a lesson in lowering expectations. Although he maintains approval ratings on the continent any politician would envy, confidence in his leadership and support for his international agenda have slipped since those heady early days.

“He was the subject of enormous projections that he was never, ever going to be able to live up to. He was the non-Bush. He was the intimation of the America without Bush that people could love again,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller, a transatlantic relations expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.

“He’s become somewhat demystified.”

Obama’s failure to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, his escalation of drone warfare and small steps on global warming are among the reasons the sheen has dulled, polling shows. Another may have been added with the recent revelations that Obama has expanded Bush-era surveillance of phone calls and email. Several European officials have demanded more information. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she will raise the issue with Obama when the two meet privately.

There are other rifts between the United States and European leaders that the president will try to mend during his visit, which begins Monday with the annual meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, held this year in Northern Ireland.

Obama will explain his decision to arm the rebels in the bloody civil war in Syria, a move hailed by leaders in Britain and France, while others fear being pulled into another war in the Middle East. And Obama is likely to renew his unsuccessful efforts to persuade Merkel to ease up on her demands for austerity measures in other European countries, which he views as hampering the continent’s economic recovery. On Friday, he called Merkel and the leaders of Britain, France and Italy to talk about Syria and Libya, which faces threats from radical Islamists.

This year, his economic offensive comes with a full-scale appeal to his high-wattage popularity — and to history. In Berlin, Obama has chosen a city that became a potent reminder of American ties to Europe. His speech will mark 50 years since President Kennedy, at Schoeneberg Town Hall in West Berlin, affirmed his solidarity with Germans in the face of communism with his declaration, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

The president is to speak at Brandenburg Gate, an imposing columned monument once cut off from the West by the Berlin Wall. In 1987, President Reagan stood with the gate behind him and demanded that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev “tear down this wall.”

Once a symbol of Cold War division, the edifice is now a coveted setting for U.S. presidents as a testament to the triumph of democracy. President Clinton spoke there in 1994 after the wall had been torn down and declared: “Berlin ist frei.”

Obama’s own moment at the gate has long been envisioned by his foreign policy advisors. His campaign scouted the site in 2008, but chose another venue after Merkel suggested she was uncomfortable with electioneering at the historic monument.

The incident was not forgotten. In 2011, Merkel needled Obama for not returning to Berlin as president, joking: “I can promise that the Brandenburg Gate will still be there.”

Obama will speak on the east side of the gate, where a plaza will limit the crowd size and the potential for unfavorable comparisons to his mega-rally.

The audience awaiting him Wednesday will undoubtedly be more skeptical. In European countries polled by Pew Research last year, 63% of those surveyed approved of Obama’s international policies, down from 78% in 2009. In Germany, 52% said they had a favorable view of the United States, down from 64% in 2009 — but up from 34% in Bush’s last year in office.

“Those numbers are still pretty good compared to other parts of the world. Really, what it’s all about is he didn’t meet expectations,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

Still, an overwhelming 87% of Germans said they have “a lot” or “some” confidence in Obama.

In his unabashedly lofty speech five years ago, Obama asked the massive crowd to envision a world without nuclear weapons, a planet Earth healed, without racial or sectarian divisions.

“These are the walls we must tear down,” Obama said. “This is the moment to stand as one.”

In Berlin this week, Obama probably will return to similar themes, referring back to the united front that ended the Cold War and imaging a more harmonious world.

“I think his message is very much going to be that just because the threat is not immediately apparent with a wall and barbed wire, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have work to do together,” said Ben Rhodes, a top White House foreign policy aide.

But Obama’s words may also reflect the toned-down ambitions he has after a term as president. Stelzenmueller noted that Germans — and Europeans as a whole — will expect Obama to address some difficult issues: Syria, trade and U.S. surveillance of foreign phone calls and email.

“Despite the fact that we’re close, we have legitimate disagreements that we need to thrash out or negotiate,” she said. “It’s difficult to make glamorous speeches about that kind of thing.”