The two stood side by side at the podium -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama. The American leader spoke and then answered the questions posed by a US reporter. Merkel listened carefully, but when the reporter tried to ask her a question, Obama interrupted him. "We want to make sure some other folks get a chance," he said -- and pointed to where the German reporters were sitting. The chancellor made a surprised face in the direction of the journalists as if to say: Wow, it's not half bad how the American president has personally spoken up for you.
The scene reflected the lightness of tone during the half-hour appearance of the two leaders in the East Room of the White House. The press conference had been moved there at the last moment due to a storm warning. It had originally been planned for the Rose Garden, where the festive atmosphere had been regarded as a significant gesture to the German visitor. However, no other head of government had appeared with Obama in the East Room before and it seemed as if, even indoors, nothing could spoil the good mood. The German-American agenda for the meeting was clear this time: A show of friendship -- after all the reports of a cool relationship between Obama and Merkel, which have now started to appear in the US as well as the German media. Shortly before the chancellor and the president entered the room, an American TV reporter was speaking live to camera about the possible differences between the two politicians.
However, Obama made sure that these supposed differences were not an issue during Merkel's visit to Washington. He began with a "Wilkommen" in German, and praised Merkel's "wisdom" and "candor." He recalled his visit to the Frauenkirche church in Dresden at the beginning of June, the restoration of which had showed the whole world, what could be achieved when countries and friends worked together. Obama greeted "my friend Chancellor Merkel." He said that Germany had a warm spot in his heart, because of the friendly reception to his speech in front of 220,000 people in German capital in July 2008, when he was still a presidential candidate. "We had a pretty good rally in Berlin. It wasn't bad," he quipped.
'A Sea Change'
The fact that Merkel had prevented Obama from speaking in front of the deeply symbolic Brandenburg Gate was now all forgotten. And the fact that Obama's team had acted with some arrogance during his Dresden visit and for a long time had rejected the idea of a brief visit to the Frauenkirche was also ancient history. Instead the president emphasized that he had now dealt with a lot of world leaders and that Merkel was "exactly what you want from an international partner."
Of course the rather more reserved chancellor couldn't really keep up with this charm offensive. But she gave it a go, thanking him for his hospitality and by mentioning the experiences of Obama's sister in Heidelberg, making it clear that she had read his autobiography. She praised the US progress when it came to climate change, and welcomed the fact that Congress was now working on a climate protection bill. "That is a sea change," she said, recalling the difficulties of the climate negotiations she has experienced.
Some in Germany fear that Obama will not act as decisively on climate abroad as at home -- however she repeatedly pointed to the upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen in December and the search for a global agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. "The president feels 100 percent committed to this issue," she said, adding: "He wants to see to it that Copenhagen becomes a success."
Both leaders spoke about Iran. Obama called on Tehran to take a path that respects international norms while Merkel reemphasized her determination to work for solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, saying that it was more important than ever that Iran should not be allowed to possess a nuclear bomb. She said that the Germans and the Americans wanted to work closely together to bring Russia alongside in the negotiations with Iran. Obama is to travel to Moscow next month and there are expectations in Washington that Germany should provide help in fostering closer relations with Russia.
Little Mention of the Financial Crisis
Obama and Merkel didn't shift from their statements made in Dresden concerning the controversy over whether Germany will take any prisoners from the Guantanamo detention center. Obama said that Germany's national security interests would have to be considered and that "we understand that." There had been no concrete demands made and Merkel had made no specific commitments, he said. However, Merkel emphasized twice that that Germany was not going to "shirk that responsibility."
The issue that has seen the greatest tensions between the two leaders was hardly mentioned -- the response to the global financial crisis and the German skeptism about America's massive state spending that could culminate in an even bigger stimulus package and an even greater budget deficit. It was made clear that these issues had already addressed during the president's recent visit to Dresden and in discussions with his economic advisers.
That left nothing but harmony in the East Room. The chancellor denied there were any differences with the new US president. Instead she praised him, saying he was very well informed and that he was didn't make promises he couldn't keep.
However even a good natured Obama cannot dispel the worries of many Europeans that they are becoming more marginalized in Washington in the face of the many political problems and increasing number of hot spots around the world. When the German chancellor was presented with the Warburg Prize for her contribution to trans-Atlantic relations on Thursday evening in the Library of Congress, only one out of a possible 435 members of the House of Representatives bothered to turn up.
Nevertheless, the Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received Merkel on Friday morning and as a parting gift she invited the chancellor to address Congress on her next visit. This is regarded as a special honor, only given to a select few foreign leaders. The offer has most likely been approved by Obama's team. Of course no date has been set yet. After all Merkel has first to be re-elected in Germany's election in September.