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Berliners welcome Obama as they did JFK

The Democratic presidential nominee, who delivers the sole public foreign policy speech of his overseas tour here Thursday, was dubbed 'president of the world' by Der Spiegel.

By / July 23, 2008

TierGarten, 4 p.m. – Be there: Democrats Abroad, the overseas branch of Obama's party, handed out rally flyers on Wednesday.

Johannes Eisele/Reuters


Berlin - The centerpiece of Barack Obama's overseas tour comes Thursday in Berlin when the Democratic presidential candidate gives the only public foreign policy speech of his trip to an Obama-mad crowd of Germans who see him as another John F. Kennedy. He's in a country and a continent making no secret it is ready for change.

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"Germans have a great desire to see this as a historic moment," says Bastian Hermisson of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, who estimates that 100,000 will turn out for the speech. "His message that people can hope the world can change for the better – that resonates. The excitement is a sign that we still feel the US is a relevant force, an influence for better or worse."

On his much-scrutinized world jaunt to listen and learn, the Illinois senator is visiting a city at the heart of America's traditional alliance after visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US-Europe relationship is most at risk for reasons of war, oil, and security.

Berlin, twice rebuilt in the 20th century, has symbolic significance, experts say – both for Europe's past and its future. Germany is regarded as the political epicenter of Europe, strategically located between East and West. America may cherish its relations with Paris and London, where Obama travels next, but to move Europe as a whole will require the next president to bolster ties with Berlin, experts say.

"In Berlin, his speech is to Europe, not just to Germany," says Dan Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington. "It used to be that for the US, the problems were Europe's divisions. Today, the challenge is unity. Berlin reflects this in a way no other city in Europe does."

This city, with its plethora of historical sites, reflects many fears and hopes of the new Europe: Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside Turkey. New immigrant groups mean that in some schools, very little German is spoken. Russian-language newspapers abound in the subway press stands. There are fears of a rising China, and, closer to home, angst about rapidly depopulating cities in the old East.

Berlin is special in the American framework, too: the place where fascism peaked and was defeated; ground zero for the fight over the political values of democracy and communism, for Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today it is where East meets West in a vastly freer but more complicated world.