Obama and Merkel shared a stage Thursday
Later, Merkel will attend the G7 with Trump
There’s no secret about which of the two American presidents German Chancellor Angela Merkel is meeting Thursday that she likes the most.
On a day of odd political coincidences, Merkel sat down with one President she calls a friend and with whom she shares a political wavelength – Barack Obama, and another, with whom she has had a frosty start – Donald Trump.
Merkel, the most powerful leader in Europe, first met Obama in Berlin discussing democracy and faith at the Brandenburg Gate, meters away from the path of the Cold War wall which once split the city, at an event hosted by the German protestant church.
Then she will be in Brussels where she will encounter Trump at the NATO summit. The current US president didn’t even shake her hand in her Oval Office visit in March. So Thursday’s meeting will be a chance for a do-over after their odd couple optics during her visit to Washington.
Merkel’s friendship with Obama and awkward early interactions with Trump are a study in political contrasts that the Berlin government and the White House will likely seek to ease given the crucial nature of the Germany-US relationship.
But it seems unlikely that the studious and cautious German leader will ever recreate the chumminess she enjoyed with Obama with the brash and unpredictable Trump.
That easy interaction was on display again on Thursday when Merkel seemed delighted to be sitting down with Obama. The former US leader told tens of thousands of people who showed up to witness their earnest conversation about democracy that Merkel was “one of my favorite partners throughout my presidency.”
Merkel once shared hugs and smiles and intimate dinners with Obama as their relationship evolved over the years. In one iconic photo that exemplifies their friendship, Obama sits on a bench while Merkel stands in front of him with her arms outstretched in deep conversation – with the German Alps in the background.
Obama gave Merkel his nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and lauded her as the epitome of freedom itself after she reached the pinnacle of political power in a united Germany after growing up under the political suppression of the communist East.
“The night the wall came down, she crossed over, like so many others, and finally experienced what she calls the ‘incredible gift of freedom,’” Obama said at a State Dinner for Merkel in 2011.
Two years later, Merkel poignantly pointed out the route of the wall during an Obama visit to Berlin, and told him that, trapped in the East, she used to listen to trains on the other side and dream of being free.
Contrast such intimacy with the body language on display at the White House when Merkel flew across the Atlantic to get to know Trump.
The President declined Merkel’s invitation for a handshake during an Oval Office photo-op, keeping his hands clasped, with a grim expression on his face.
The President later said that he didn’t hear the request and meant no offense but the moment became an irresistible metaphor for the rocky start of their relationship.
Later at a news conference, Merkel visibly blanched at Trump’s remark that she, who once had her cellphone listened to by the National Security Agency, and he had something in common – namely being tapped by the Obama administration.
In effect, Merkel will be coming face-to-face Thursday with one president that she probably wishes were still in the White House and the other, with whom she now has no choice to partner, no matter how tough it is going to be.
Merkel, demonstrating rare sentimentality but also the pragmatic streak that runs through her politics, admitted last year it was tough to see Obama go.
“Taking leave from my partner and friend, well, yes, it is hard. If you’ve worked together with somebody very well, leave-taking is very difficult. But we are politicians. We all know that democracy lives off change,” Merkel said at a joint news conference during Obama’s farewell visit to Berlin as President.
The fact that Merkel is sharing the spotlight with Obama and Trump on the same day is a quirk of the calendar: the former president was invited to the Berlin event organized by the German evangelical protestant church a year ago, long before his successor was even elected.
But the presence on European soil of the current and immediate past US President will inevitably draw comparisons about their leadership styles and policies, especially as Obama remains popular in Europe while Trump is not.
There is deep concern in Europe, for instance, about Trump’s hostility to anti-climate change policies pursued by Obama, as well as his attempt to institute a ban on travel to the United States of residents of several Muslim nations.
And Obama largely pursued a foreign policy based on multilateralism, which is more to the taste of European leaders, than the “America First” approach that is now the organizing principle of US diplomacy.
Obama’s team insisted he was not in Germany to play politics.