BERLIN: Five years and 50 years. As President Barack Obama revisits Berlin, he can’t escape those anniversaries and the inevitable comparisons to history and personal achievement.
With his own 2008 speech at Berlin’s Victory Column and formerPresident John F. Kennedy’s 1963 historic denunciation of the Soviet bloc as markers, Obama will use an address at the city’s Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday to renew his call to reduce the world’s nuclear stockpiles.
The White House said Obama will draw attention to his plan for a one-third reduction in U.S. and Russian arsenals, rekindling a goal that was a centerpiece of his early first-term national security agenda. Obama will also hold an afternoon news conference withGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel after a meeting between the two leaders.
His 26-hour whirlwind visit to the German capital caps three days of international summitry for the president and marks his return to a place where he once summoned a throng of 200,000 to share his ambitious vision for American leadership.
That was 2008, when Obama was running for president and those who supported him at home and abroad saw the young mixed-race American as a unifying and transformational figure who signified hope and change.
Five years later, Obama comes to deliver a highly anticipated speech to a country that’s a bit more sober about his aspirations and the extent of his successes, yet still eager to receive his attention at a time that many here feel that Europe, and Germany in particular, are no longer U.S. priorities. A Pew Research Center poll of Germans found that while their views of the U.S. have slipped since Obama’s first year in office, he has managed to retain his popularity, with 88 percent of those surveyed approving of his foreign policies.
Obama also has an arc of history to fulfill.
Fifty years ago next week, President Kennedy addressed a crowd of 450,000 in that then-divided city to repudiate communism and famously declare “Ich bin ein Berliner,” German for “I am a Berliner.” Since then, presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton have used Berlin speeches to articulate broad themes about freedom and international alliances.
Obama, fresh from a two-day summit of the Group of Eight industrial economies, placed his hand over his heart outside the sunny presidential palace as a German military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the American national anthem. He and German President Joachim Gauck inspected a lineup of German military troops before entering the palace, stopping to greet children who waved American and German flags.
The high point for Obama on Wednesday will be a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of Germany’s division and later reunification. It is a venue that Merkel denied him in 2008, saying only sitting presidents were granted such an honor. Obama’s speech will also mark the first time a U.S. president will speak from the east side of the former Wall, a symbolic crossing into territory formerly under Soviet control.