In return to Berlin, Obama finds a cooler Germany

While still highly popular, Obama has come under criticism from the German public and government alike over the NSA's online surveillance program and US use of drones.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver remarks in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Mr. Obama, while still regarded positively among Germans, has seen increasing criticism over the US drone program and the NSA's expansive online surveillance.

Visiting Berlin today, President Barack Obama likely has some warm memories of a city that gave him a rapturous welcome five years ago.

But speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, 50 years after John F. Kennedy took the crowd by storm with his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, he may be finding that repeating his earlier success in Germany – let alone that of JFK – is hard to achieve.

Mr. Obama today at the Gate called for moving past "Cold War nuclear postures" and proposed cutting nuclear arsenals by up to a third in a deal that would involve some Russian reciprocity. 

Yet Obama’s intensified use of armed drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, his failure to close the Guantanamo prison camp, and – most recently – the revelations about US surveillance programs have upset Germans who pinned high hopes of change onto the Obama administration. "Der verlorene Freund" – The lost friend – read a recent cover of Germany’s influential Spiegel magazine.

“I think Obama is wrong when he says you cannot have a hundred percent security and a hundred percent privacy,” German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told journalists when the spy programs PRISM and Boundless Informant became known. “More state controls, more observation means people are less free.”

The minister demanded to be fully informed about US surveillance on German citizens, and the issue was part of the talks between Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel this morning in Berlin.

At an extensive press conference after his meeting with Ms. Merkel, Obama was at pains to explain his policies. For a full six minutes, he spoke about surveillance, and assured the public that US secret services were not reading private emails or listening in on private phone calls, and only invaded privacy where it was sanctioned by a judge. He reiterated his intention to close Guantanamo, but pointed out the political problems at home that had prevented him from doing so.

A more tempered enthusiasm

Despite criticism from Europe's elites that Obama has done little to nurture transatlantic relations, his ratings among Germans are nevertheless still impressive.

Sixty percent think that the American president is doing a good job, according to a survey earlier this month by pollsters Yougov; some 42 percent believe he is a more successful politician than the German chancellor. Many argue that as US president, his hands are tied by domestic politics, and a sometimes hostile Congress.

But there are unmistakable voices of dissent.

In 2008, Obama was greeted by 200,000 enthusiastic Berliners in the Tiergarten, a few hundred yards from the Brandenburg Gate, and nobody spoiled the party. He was seen as the cosmopolitan, cool alternative to then president George W. Bush. Today, he spoke in front of an effusive but far smaller crowd of 4,000 invited guests at the Gate, and his visit was preceded by a whole range of anti-Obama demonstrations.

On the day before his arrival in the German capital, protesters were carrying placards through the city center, reading “Yes, we scan!” or depicting Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama, the former with the caption “I have a dream,” the latter with “I have a drone.”

Officials are trying to play down the differences. “Many things have changed, but this hasn’t: The US-German relationship is one of the most important alliances there is," says US Ambassador to Germany Philip D. Murphy. “Germany is one our best partners, if not THE best partner in the world.”

Austerity vs. deficit spending

There is yet another issue dividing Obama and Merkel, and it may well be the most significant.

“It is clearly the economy”, says Joseph Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “Merkel believes in saving money, not deficit spending, Obama is the opposite. But since Congress is blocking him from spending, he wants Merkel to push consumption in favor of the US trade balance.”

But that request, Mr. Braml believes, will fall on deaf ears in the German chancellery.

Nonrtheless, in the end the US-German relationship is a rational one, says Braml, which will keep the two close regardless of their disagreements. “Both countries need each other equally,” he says.

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