“They were presidents, I am a citizen,” he told reporters travelling with him. “There is no doubt that part of what I want to communicate on both sides of the Atlantic is the enormous potential of us restoring a sense of coming together.”
The presumptive Democratic nominee is expected to speak before tens of thousands of people Thursday evening at a public event in the heart of Berlin. Germany has been swept up in “Obamania” for days, flattered that the wildly popular US senator would pick the German capital for his most important stop in Europe.
Young Germans decked out in Obama t-shirts were walking through the centre of Berlin ahead of the speech handing out flyers promoting the event. “Obama today,” a blond man in his twenties wearing glasses said in German before hurrying on his way toward the Alexanderplatz train station.
Before he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama defended himself against claims he is defying convention by electioneering abroad. He told reporters he wanted to speak to the whole of Europe so he needed a big venue and it was Berlin’s symbolism that drew him to make his major speech in the city.
“Obviously Berlin is representative of the extraordinary success of the post World War II effort to bring the continent together and to bring the West together, and later to bring the East and the West together,” he said. “So I think it is a natural place to talk.”
Both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan made memorable speeches in Berlin while the city was divided during the Cold War. Kennedy famously expressed his solidarity with West Berliners by proclaiming “ich bin ein Berliner” and Reagan demanded the communists “tear down” the Wall.
Merkel’s spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said the German leader had discussed several key foreign policy issues including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East peace process and next year’s NATO summit with Obama during their one-hour meeting in the Chancellery. “It was very open and intensive talk in an excellent atmosphere,” Wilhelm said.
Obama later met German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during the afternoon before heading to Berlin’s Victory Column, a monument to Prussian 19th century war victories in the city’s central Tiergarten park, to hold his speech at 7 pm local time.
Berliners throw a party
On a sunny day in the German capital, Berliners were lending the event an atmosphere akin to a festival by grilling sausages and selling beer near the site of the speech, which has frequently been used for large public gatherings.
Only a few weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of Germans watched their national football team make it to the finals of the European football championships on huge screens set up along the main avenue through the Tiergarten Strasse des 17 Juni. The city also celebrated the opening of the new US Embassy here on July 4 with a big American-themed festival.
And before it moved out of Berlin, the massive techno party the Love Parade used to attract millions of people to the very spot near the Victory Column where Obama will speak on Thursday.
Obama is wildly popular in Germany where, according to a recent opinion poll, 76 percent of the people would like to see him win the November election.
But Peter Thiele, a 44-year-old beer vendor set up Strasse des 17 Juni, wasn’t buying all the hype. Calling Obama “just a candidate,” he said it wasn’t enough for Berliners to be enamoured with the senator.
“He’s got to convince people in America, not here,” he added.