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Can Germany’s Obamania last?

Germany might be feverishly awaiting Barack Obama’s visit to Berlin on Thursday, but the US presidential candidate will have a tough time keeping the country’s affections if he’s elected this November, writes The Local’s Marc Young.

Can Germany’s Obamania last?
Photo: DPA

Is it an inappropriate campaign stop on foreign soil, or simply a sign that the challenges facing America these days are of a global nature?

Regardless of your take on the matter, Barack Obama’s visit to Berlin this week has certainly kicked up a ruckus on both sides of the Atlantic.

Whereas some antagonistic US pundits have vocally tried to tell the Illinois senator that presidential candidates traditionally have left politics at America’s shores, a few rankled German commentators and politicians have accused him of trying to hijack Germany’s most potent national symbols for his own political gain.

After German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently signalled her disapproval of an appearance in front of the Brandenburg Gate for what she deemed an overseas campaign rally, Obama’s team quickly settled on the nearby Victory Column located at the heart of Berlin’s central Tiergarten park.

There will be no iconic backdrop of the landmark associated with the peaceful revolution leading to German reunification – Obama’s campaign team now has to be content with TV images showing a monument to Prussian military victories in the 19th century.

Adored by thousands

But when the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee arrives in the German capital on Thursday he’ll still be assured a rapturous welcome by a country eager to start a new chapter in transatlantic relations. His scheduled “major” foreign policy speech – likely to be given to an adoring audience of thousands – is already being compared in Germany to the famous Berlin addresses of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan even though he hasn’t yet uttered a word.

Of course, much of Obama’s appeal to Germans simply lies in him not being George W. Bush. The public here has for years so loathed the current man in the White House that even Obama’s elderly Republican challenger John McCain looks fresh and new. But for most Germans it’s Obama who holds the promise of a cleaner break with the Bush administration’s most-disliked policies.

Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, his perceived backwardness on global warming and preference for seemingly arrogant unilateral action over the past eight years has left America’s reputation in tatters in Germany. And while that might have been traumatic for the Americans living in the country, it’s been at least as equally distressing to the Germans.

America was supposed to be the country that magnanimously defended decency and democracy around the world, not a place that started questionable wars and dragged its feet on pressing environmental issues while the polar ice caps melted.

Bush jarred Germany from its happy Yankee daydream, which is perhaps why so many Germans are such enthusiastic Obama backers – they’re desperate for him to reassure them America is the good place they’ve always believed it to be. Intelligent, charismatic and best yet – apparently interested in what they have to say – Obama pushes all the right buttons for the Germans.

It’s no wonder a recent survey by pollster TNS Forschung showed a massive 76 percent of Germans considered Obama the better candidate for the US presidency. A mere 10 percent picked McCain.

Problems on the horizon

But will the German love affair with Obama last? Already there are problems looming on the horizon.

Obama has said he wants to redeploy US forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. But he also wants NATO allies like Germany to shoulder a bigger burden in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. However, several German politicians are already trying to pre-empt any demands for Germany to increase its troop levels or send its soldiers into dangerous combat missions in the south of the country.

That certainly doesn’t sound much like the “unlimited solidarity” Berlin professed shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Back then, very few in Germany questioned that military intervention in Afghanistan was necessary – even the pacifist Green party backed sending troops as part of a NATO mission. However, only a few years later there was overwhelming opposition in Germany to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Unfortunately for both German leaders and Obama should he become president, the Bush administration has succeeded in melding the two conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq to the point where most Germans can no longer distinguish between them. The Bush strategy of labelling both part of the war on terror has worked, but with the unintended consequence of sapping German support for the fight in Afghanistan rather than bolster backing for action in Iraq.

Is Obama’s admittedly powerful charisma enough to woo both the German government and public? Can he explain why Berlin should risk having more German soldiers come home from Afghanistan in coffins? Can he distinguish between the “good” war in Afghanistan and the “bad” war in Iraq?

Or will Germany’s Obamania simply reach its highpoint this Thursday afternoon in Berlin?

POLITICS

Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

The last time Germany hosted a G7 summit, then-chancellor Angela Merkel produced a series of viral images with Barack Obama, clinking giant mugs in a traditional Bavarian beer garden and communing against a verdant Alpine backdrop.

Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

Her successor Olaf Scholz, hobbled in domestic opinion polls and of modest global stature, may struggle to match that convivial atmosphere when leaders gather again from Sunday.

The centrist Scholz, 64, assumed the presidency of the Group of Seven rich countries in January, just a month after taking office in Berlin.

Since then his handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation and energy supply complications have put his government to the test while sending his approval ratings plunging.

READ ALSO: Opinion – Scholz is already out of step at Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Scholz told parliament on Wednesday he was ready to seize the three days of talks at the Elmau Castle mountain resort – the same remote, picturesque venue Merkel chose in 2015 – to burnish Germany’s global image and the standing of the West.

“In Europe’s biggest security crisis for decades, Germany as the economically strongest and most populous country in the EU is assuming special responsibility – and not just for its own security but also for the security of its allies,” he said.

A series of summits in the coming days must show “that G7, EU and NATO are as united as ever” and that the “democracies of the world are standing together in the fight against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s imperialism,” Scholz said.

READ ALSO: Germany tightens border controls ahead of G7 summit

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Olivier Matthys

‘Merkel tradition’

Joachim Trebbe, a professor of political communication at Berlin’s Free University, said Scholz had a “huge opportunity” with the G7 to dispel any doubts about his leadership skills or resolve against the Russian president.

“At the start of his term and even when the war began, Scholz was quite reserved – perhaps a little bit in the tradition of Ms Merkel,” a
still-popular conservative the Social Democratic chancellor has sought to emulate, Trebbe said.

She also “tended to manage crises and didn’t pay much attention to informing the media at every step”.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 as part of the G7 summit.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 during the G7 summit. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

After accusations of foot-dragging, Scholz’s attempts at a reset were on display during a long-delayed visit to Kyiv last week, joined by the leaders of France, Italy and Romania.

A journalist from the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung travelling with the chancellor noted that he had a tendency to make gaffes under pressure – like “an old tap that either releases ice-cold or boiling water”.

‘Symbols’

His trouble finding the middle ground had led him to exercise too much caution when it came to sending weapons to Ukraine, or too little, as when on a visit to Lithuania this month he significantly overstated German arms deliveries.   

The chancellor, whose sometimes robotic style has earned him the nickname Scholzomat, has also found himself outflanked in his own unwieldy ruling coalition of his Social Democrats (SPD), ecologist Greens and liberal Free Democrats.

A poll this week showed that the Greens – with popular Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, both credited with clearer messaging on Ukraine — were leading the SPD in voter intentions for the first time since July 2021.

Both parties, however, are currently trailing the conservative opposition, which has relentlessly criticised Scholz’s Ukraine and energy policies as too timid.

READ ALSO: Why has Germany been so slow to deliver weapons to Ukraine?

Trebbe said that initiatives at the G7 bearing Scholz’s imprint on issues including future political and economic support for Ukraine, climate
protection and strengthening democracies worldwide were crucial if he hoped to gain political tailwinds from the summit.

But he said the gathering was nearly as much about generating images, such as the instant meme of Merkel, arms outstretched, explaining her world view to a nonchalant Obama, draped in repose on a wooden bench.

“That’s where symbols of unity, common strategy and strong leadership are created,” Trebbe said.

“I’m pretty sure Scholz has a team of professionals ready to take full advantage of that aspect of the summit.”

By Deborah COLE

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