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Obama Ist Kein Berliner

Fifty years after JFK's visit, and five since his own, Obama returns to Berlin—to a much different mood

Carsten Koall/Getty

When Barack Obama visited Berlin in 2008 as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, more than 200,000 people turned out to listen to him speak. The young children propped up on their parents' shoulders were the only ones whose attention seemed to wander. Everyone else—some people with their eyes closed, others lightly swaying to the cadence of Obama's voice—was patiently awaiting some sort of deliverance. It had less the feeling of a political rally than an inclusive, if slightly opaque, religious event—a Latin Mass performed at a Brooklyn farmers' market.

The event minted Obama's reputation as a political rock star, one capable of charming the masses at home and abroad. His opponent, John McCain, released an ad comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, but Europeans were reminded of a more auspicious celebrity: John F. Kennedy, whose own visit to Berlin in 1963—during which he famously declared himself to be a citizen of the embattled city (or, if you insist, a jelly doughnut), and Germans lined the streets ecstatically chanting his name in staccato unison—was, in fact, the only precedent for the enthusiasm that greeted Obama's arrival. The parallel clearly wasn't very far from Obama's mind either, at least not judging from the fact that he arranged to give his first campaign speech at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; nor from the way his campaign carefully stage-managed endorsements from JFK's brother and daughter, Teddy and Caroline Kennedy.

Judging from Obama's itinerary this week, he's still keen on the comparison. On Wednesday, he will return to the German capital, in a trip that one could fairly describe as being over-determined in its symbolism. It's not just five years since Obama's reputation-making visit to Berlin; it's also 50 years since Kennedy's “ich bin ein Berliner” visit. Like Kennedy, Obama will appear before the city's Brandenburg Gate (a privilege denied him during his last visit.) And like Kennedy, Obama will be arriving at a time of chronic international crisis (the continued standoff in divided Berlin, in Kennedy's case; the drawn-out civil war in Syria and the intractable euro crisis, in Obama's).

Obama, wittingly or not, is setting himself up to be measured against his predecessor, and Germans have been more than willing to take the bait. This past week, the Obama-Kennedy comparison has been made throughout the German and American media. But anyone in Berlin on the eve of Obama's arrival already has a sense that Obama just won't be able to measure up—neither to his predecessor, nor to his own showing in 2008.

Part of the reason is that Germans have already had ample chance to be disappointed by his presidency. Despite an 82 percent favorability rating in a recent German poll, Obama is also seen as the warden of Guantanamo, the drone king, the sequestrationer-in-chief, and the overseer of an omnipresent surveillance state that reportedly has targeted Germans, too. (The recent revelations about the National Security Agency have been particularly disturbing to Germans: One politician, a member of the European Parliament, likened the surveillance to the East German Stasi's tactics, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has already announced that she will raise the issue when she meets with Obama.)

By contrast, Obama's arrival in 2008 was greeted the same way as Kennedy's was in 1963: as the dawn of a new era. Both were seen as leaders, who by virtue of their youth and intelligence were capable of shaping a new international mood. It was still too early in Kennedy's term for the contradictions in his political vision (not to mention his personal life) to have revealed themselves, as they now clearly have with Obama. We'll never know, of course, how Kennedy would have been received if he had lived to be re-elected, and tried to deliver a speech after presiding over a growing war in Vietnam. (As it was, Kennedy arrived in Berlin as a man of peace, having earned renown for narrowly averting a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.)

But if Obama's reputation for charisma has weakened, it's probably not just a matter of circumstance. Judged alongside Kennedy, he may never have been all that charismatic to begin with. There are, of course, certain stylistic parallels—not least, their similarly restrained temperaments. The “elusive detachment” that Norman Mailer once described in Kennedy is also part of the reason the public has always been attracted to Obama: the sense that they are withholding some emotion or thought has always allowed people to project their own desires and beliefs onto them. The mayor of Cologne, greeting the American president in 1963, touched on Kennedy’s ephemeral and mysterious quality by describing him as a “promising comet that glances against our nation...and that we interpret as a good omen."

But Kennedy’s diplomacy wasn’t nearly as detached as his general aesthetic. What made his Berlin speech so impressive was that it managed to be both cool and hot: He spoke in a controlled, even quiet, tone, but the content of his speech was surprisingly assertive and emotional. It’s easy to forget how bold it was for Kennedy to assert a common identity with Germans against the threat of the Soviet Union; this was a policy that not only contradicted the détente policies that he had announced not long prior, but was being addressed to a German public that wasn’t yet entirely sure of its own identity in relation to the Cold War superpowers. Kennedy’s presence and rhetoric weren’t just glancing observations–they actually helped forge Germany’s political commitment to the West. Obama’s speeches, by contrast, have tended to be either self-consciously analytical or airily sentimental, and they haven’t accomplished much of lasting durability, aside from securing his own election.

Kennedy, in short, was a master at sending signals that he cared about the crises that others were facing. (As Isaiah Berlin once put it, Kennedy was adept at listening to others with “extreme intentness.”) When it comes to Obama, Germans have little feeling he knows or cares about their problems at all. His top Europe policy is a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement, but can anyone claim to know what he really thinks about the future of the fragile European Union (a fellow winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it bears pointing out)? In that way, the aloofness that is allegedly holding back his domestic agenda may be deteriorating his efforts at public diplomacy. The cover of last week's Der Spiegel, depicting Obama alongside a portrait of Kennedy, spoke volumes: It bore the simple headline “The Lost Friend.”

On the other hand, it would also be somewhat ridiculous for Obama to make any grand gestures on Wednesday. The ties between Europe and the U.S. are no longer about existential security arrangements or clashes of ideology. If talks between Merkel and Obama revolve around the use of chlorine as a poultry disinfectant and France’s relationship to Hollywood, maybe that’s just what a mature assessment of the relationship demands. If Germans don’t name any streets or public squares after Obama, so be it. 

None of that means that public diplomacy is obsolete in our age—it’s just a question of where the president should be wielding his charisma. Last week’s carefully planned California summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping gives a pretty good hint of whom the White House has in mind. And this is where Kennedy’s example should prove inspiring to Obama. If he really wants an impressive legacy, maybe he should try convincing the Chinese public that he is a Beijinger.