x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Germans hail Obama as new Kennedy

The Democratic senator starts his European tour in Berlin, saying he wanted to signal a fresh start in transatlantic ties.

Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he arrives to deliver a speech at the Victory Column in Berlin yesterday.
Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he arrives to deliver a speech at the Victory Column in Berlin yesterday.

BERLIN // Barack Obama received a superstar's welcome yesterday as he arrived in Germany for the European leg of his international tour, with about 200,000 cheering and chanting his campaign slogan "Yes We Can" as they gathered to hear him hold a keynote speech on foreign policy. In his speech, Mr Obama called for a new era of unity between Europe and the United States and said Europe must play a greater role alongside the US in fighting terrorism. "If we're honest with each other, we know that sometimes, on both sides of the Atlantic, we have drifted apart, and forgotten our shared destiny," he said. "In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common. In America, there are voices that deride and deny the importance of Europe's role in our security and our future. Both views miss the truth," Mr Obama said, his deep voice resonating around the city's central Tiergarten. Referring to the threat of terror, he said: "No one nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone. None of us can deny these threats, or escape responsibility in meeting them." Part of the Tiergarten was blocked off to traffic to make space for the crowd, and giant screens were put up to make sure everyone could catch a glimpse of the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate being hailed here as the new John F Kennedy. Sausage and beer stalls lined the street and rock music blared from loudspeakers, creating the atmosphere of a street festival. "The burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together," Mr Obama told the crowd, his speech punctuated by applause and shouts of "Yes We Can!". "A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more - not less," he said, as the evening sun cast a golden hue across the crowd. "We can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York. If we could win a battle of ideas against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope." Dirk Mirov, a school administrator from the northern city of Kiel who had travelled hundreds of kilometres to hear Mr Obama speak, was carrying a large banner that read "Obama for Chancellor". "Our government is devoid of ideas, Obama stands for a new style of politics, he's trying to change things, to go down new paths," Mr Miro said. "He really inspires people." Berliners have been likening Mr Obama's visit to JFK's in 1963, when two-thirds of the population of West Berlin turned out to hear the president speak the legendary sentence "Ich bin ein Berliner". "It reminded me of when Kennedy came here," said one Berlin woman who had seen Kennedy during his visit. "The whole atmosphere is similar." "The public here is projecting its ideals on Obama, it's as if he's some kind of Messiah," said Josef Braml, an analyst of trans-Atlantic relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank. Mr Obama met Angela Merkel, the chancellor, at the Federal Chancellery for about an hour before holding an afternoon session with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister. He also met Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin. Mr Obama will travel on to Paris today and London tomorrow. Reports said French and British officials were annoyed that he was favouring Germany by spending longer there and taking more time to meet officials. An overwhelming majority of Germans - 76 per cent according to a recent survey - want Mr Obama to win the November election and usher in a new era of trans-Atlantic harmony after eight years of often bitter relations under George W Bush, still vilified by Germans for the Iraq war. Mr Obama's appeal runs deep for more co-operation on security. He is seen as a potential leader who can reinvigorate waning interest in politics, especially in Germany, where voters are tiring of a dull domestic political scene devoid of great orators and new ideas. "Obama has created a mood which makes it possible to believe in politics again," said Norbert Röttgen, a senior member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats. Der Spiegel, the influential German news magazine devoted its front cover to Mr Obama this week with the headline "Germany Meets the Superstar". Angelina Conde, 17, a school student from Berlin, said: "He's charming and radiates a great charisma. The way he talks is really convincing. And he's not Bush." Mr Obama's campaign team deliberately chose Berlin as the site to hold his only public speech during his European trip because the city evokes an era of strength and respect for America. "It's a reminder of happier days when America could feel proud of itself and was respected all over the world," Mr Braml said. "Obama wants good images that his campaign team thinks will do him good at home." Mr Obama, believed to be the first American presidential candidate to hold a public speech in Berlin, rejected comparisons with former presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton. "They were presidents, I am a citizen," Mr Obama told reporters on board his plane to Berlin from Tel Aviv. "But 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. Then, later to bring the East and the West together. So I think it's a natural place to talk." Instead of the Brandenburg Gate, Mr Obama spoke at the "Victory Column" - ironically, a symbol not of unity but of Prussian 19th century military victories over Denmark, France and Austria. Topped by a gilded Goddess of Victory, it is adorned by cannons captured from Prussia's enemies. "Whether he will be able to deliver that change is a different matter given the major constraints posed on US presidents by congress, interest groups and the American people," Mr Braml said. "There's a definite gap between people's hopes for Obama and the more sober assessment of governments. Experts who are familiar with the US political system know how difficult it is to bring about change." @Email:dcrossland@thenational.ae