Later Wednesday, Obama planned to 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.
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.
Obama will make the case for his nuclear plan during a speech at Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate. His address comes nearly 50 years after John F. Kennedy’s famous Cold War speech in this once-divided city, and five years after Obama spoke in the city during his 2008 run for president.
The president has previously called for reductions to the stockpiles and is not expected to outline a timeline for this renewed push. But by addressing the issue in a major foreign policy speech, Obama is signaling a desire to rekindle an issue that was a centerpiece of his early first-term national security agenda.
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 visit was attracting widespread attention in Germany. People waved and snapped photos as Obama sped by after his arrival and a thick cluster awaited the motorcade as it passed the Brandenburg Gate. An evening news show in Berlin devoted itself to the president’s visit, highlighting “Das Biest,” or “The Beast,” as the president’s armored limousine is called.
There have been a few small protests, including one directed against the National Security Agency’s surveillance of foreign communications, where about 50 people waved placards taunting, “Yes, we scan.”
Merkel has said she was surprised at the scope of the spying that was revealed and said the U.S. must clarify what information is monitored. But she also said U.S. intelligence was key to foiling a large-scale terror plot and acknowledged her country is “dependent” on cooperating with American spy services.
For Merkel, the visit presents an opportunity to bolster her domestic standing ahead of a general election in September.
The U.S. and the Germans have clashed on economic issues, with Obama pressing for Europe to prime the economy with government stimulus measures, while Merkel has insisted on pressing debt-ridden countries to stabilize their fiscal situations first.
But the two sides have found common ground on a trans-Atlantic trade pact between the European Union and the U.S. At the just-completed G-8 summit, the leaders agreed to hold the first talks next month in the U.S.