Obamania in Berlin An American Idol in Germany

US presidential candidate Barack Obama will land in Berlin on Thursday. Europeans have fallen in love with the Democrat, mostly because he's not Bush. But they may not like what they hear this week.


He has already found his spot at the Brandenburg Gate. Indeed, it's where he speaks every day between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. -- his voice, met with wild cheers from his audience, is enough to send shivers down one's spine even today. After giving his speech, he is driven in an open limousine through Berlin, where hundreds of thousands line the streets, chanting: "Kennedy, Kennedy."

His eternal spot in Berlin is in a museum on Pariser Platz, directly across the square from the Brandenburg Gate. The museum, called "The Kennedys," represents the ultimate in a politician's achievements -- complete and utter hero worship. It is filled with attractive photographs, inspiring quotes and magnificence. The film constantly on screen there depicts former US President John F. Kennedy's appearance in Berlin in June, 1963, including the parade given in his honor and his speech in front of the Schöneberg Town Hall, where he famously said: "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner").

Barack Obama's voice, by contrast, will not be heard at the Brandenburg Gate and he will not be gazing at the "The Kennedys" museum when he speaks in Berlin. Though he is often compared with Kennedy and sparks similar hopes, Obama hasn't come that far yet. He still lacks the kind of stature that would spare him from being ground through the mill of German politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel turned down his request to speak at the Brandenburg Gate.

President of the World

But at least he is coming. He will be in Berlin this Thursday, when Germans will hail him as a magician with the ability to transform a gloomy world into a brighter place. Never before has there been so much excitement in Germany over the visit of a presumed US presidential candidate. Obama may be running for the White House, but judging by the commotion, one would think that he had already advanced two steps further and were the president of the world.

Which is precisely the issue. Obama raises hopes that he will not just change America, but politics as a whole.

Obama is the hope of a Western world filled with concerns. A recession looms as does high inflation sparked by exploding demand for commodities and natural resources. Furthermore, no one has yet come up with a convincing response to global warming. No one knows how to bring peace to the Middle East, Afghanistan or Iraq. And no one has a promising strategy for dealing with Islamist terrorism.

At the same time, the West is searching for its place in an "incomplete world order," as journalist Peter Bender describes the current state of affairs. How strong will China, Russia and India become? How should the West interact with these countries? And is there even such a thing as the "West" anymore?

It is time for leadership. And only one man inspires the kind of confidence that would enable him to assume this leadership: Barack Obama. Germans, in particular, are pinning their hopes on this man. Whereas just 10 percent favor the Republican candidate John McCain, fully 76 percent consider Barack Obama the better candidate.

Hubertus Heil, the general secretary of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), has even borrowed Obama's campaign slogan in an effort to whip up support. But Heil's feeble attempt to inform party members that "Yes, we can!" might as well have fallen on deaf ears. As Heil and later Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier learned, it takes more than words to produce charisma.

A Country that Lacks Leadership

"Obama has created a mood that makes it possible to have faith in politics," said Norbert Röttgen, the parliamentary leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Röttgen spoke enthusiastically about Obama, but his enthusiasm was also an indirect criticism of top German politicians, of men and women who seem to be everything but Obama, or at least everything but the image that many Germans have formed of him.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was also a candidate for the global presidency once. But by now it has become clear that she even has trouble leading her coalition government at home.

Obama will be visiting a country that lacks leadership. Merkel is unable to take energetic action, the climate in Berlin is too harsh for SPD party leader Kurt Beck, and in a recent interview in Stern magazine, the governor of the state of Lower Saxony, Christian Wulff -- once seen as an up and coming Christian Democrat -- admitted that he is no "alpha male" and was not totally consumed by advancing up the political ladder. Surrounded by such blandness, it's no wonder that many a German sees the charismatic American as a savior.

Part of that attitude stems from a need to repair relations between the two countries. Some of the Germans' concerns about big brother across the Atlantic developed into an open quarrel during the era of current US President George W. Bush.

In short, there are quite a few challenges ahead for a man who hasn't even been elected yet -- and perhaps doesn't even embody the image Germany has formed of him. America, at any rate, is already a step ahead of the Germans. While Germany looks forward to being spellbound by Obama this week, the magician's allure has already begun to fade in America.

His request to give a speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate even sparked some criticism in the United States. "It would make him look like a president," says CNN commentator Bill Schneider. "Every news channel would then play Ronald Reagan and they would play Kennedy 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'" And it is not just Obama's adversaries, but even his supporters who were put off by the chutzpa of a presidential candidate seeking to speak at the Brandenburg Gate. "That is a bit arrogant, isn't it?" says Schneider.

The criticism coming from the conservative wing has been stronger. Obama "thought a cheering audience and a few fainting frauleins would be a picturesque way to bolster his foreign policy credentials," says right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer. "What Obama does not seem to understand is that the Brandenburg Gate is something you earn. What was his role in the fight against communism?"

Photographers and TV Crews

For Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, on the other hand, it was patently obvious that Obama would want to speak at the Brandenburg Gate. Where else? The gate went from being a symbol of a divided Germany to one of unity. It is Berlin's most famous landmark.

But Wowereit's bubble burst when Merkel, at the time on a trip to faraway Japan, registered her concerns about an Obama appearance in front of the gate. In a conversation with President Bush at the G-8 summit in Hokkaido, the chancellor said that she was opposed to Obama's appearance at the Brandenburg Gate.

The official explanation was that such an important and deeply symbolic place should not be used as a stage in a foreign election campaign. But this raises the question as to why, for example, "Fashion Week," a major fashion event and enormous ad campaign for its sponsor Mercedes rolled into one, was allowed to completely take over such an important and deeply symbolic place last year. At least Obama would have brought more dignity to the site, which suggests that Merkel could be looking at the Obama appearance through a political lens. According to that logic, a victory for the Democrat Obama would give a boost to Germany's center-left Social Democrats.

At the Berlin Town Hall of Social Democratic Mayor Klaus Wowereit, officials likewise suspect that the chancellor was merely denying her Social Democratic rivals a publicity coup. Wowereit's office, though, remains confident that the mayor and Obama will visit the Brandenburg Gate together -- complete with photographers and TV crews.


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