When U.S. President Barack Obama was candidate Obama back in 2008, he asked to give a speech in front of the iconic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. It’s a site not just rich in meaning as the former dividing line between East and West Berlin but also in American history: It’s where Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps bowing to pressure from the Bush Administration not to help a Democratic candidate, turned Obama down saying that spot is reserved for heads of state. Instead, Obama spoke across town at the Victory Column, drawing a crowd of 100,000 people.
After that, it took a while for the Obama Administration to warm up to Merkel. “They’re both super rational, super cool. They’re very similar—they don’t let personal feelings get involved,” says Stephen Szabo, Executive Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Academy. “They’re not really warm and fuzzy with each other. They’re very businesslike. Some Germans say there’s a huge problem between the two of them but I don’t buy that.”
Merkel’s credentials are to be put to the test this weekend in national elections—a contest clouded by uncertainties, but which she is favored to win. Is that an outcome that will be welcomed by the White House?
Merkel has more in common, ideologically speaking, with President George W. Bush, who delighted in her East German upbringing and her rejection of communism. He considered her a fellow champion of liberty. Still, the notoriously standoff-ish Merkel was once famously photographed wincing when Bush sneaked up behind her at a Group of Eight summit and gave her a shoulder rub.
Merkel took office in 2005 at a time when German-U.S. relations were at a low. Her center-left predecessor, Gerhard Schroder, angered Bush when he refused to support the war in Iraq. In fact, she first popped on the Bush Administration’s radar when, as leader of the Bundestag’s opposition, she came to Washington in early 2003 and gave a speech supporting the war in Iraq. “Bush was happy because they got rid of Schroder and they thought Merkel would be a lot better for U.S. foreign policy,” Szabo says. “She was friendlier, but being a German politician she had to distance herself from Bush, who wasn’t well liked in Europe, but Bush understood that.”
After Obama won, it was easier for Merkel to openly ally herself with Washington and she and Obama became closer. Instead of dealing with Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who chairs the Free Democratic Party as part of the governing coalition, the Administration often prefers to liaise directly with Merkel, according to says Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Obama even presented Merkel with the Medal of Freedom in 2011, one of America’s highest honors. The fact that Obama rolled out the red carpet “and opened up the White House to her and gave her Freedom Medal were indications that she was chairman of the European board and important player in not only keeping Europe afloat but also keeping his own economy afloat for his reelection,” Janes says.
Throughout Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, the specter of Europe’s debt crisis hovered, threatening the fledgling U.S. economic recovery. Obama grew so worried that in the summer of 2012 he dispatched Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to Europe to try and convince Merkel to consider some short-term stimulus. That trip failed but, luckily for Obama, the U.S. recovery gained steam despite Europe’s woes.
The stimulus wasn’t the only place where Obama and Merkel clashed. Merkel opposed intervention in Libya in 2011, and Germany joined Russia and China in abstaining to vote in the UN Security Council to endorse a no-fly zone over the North African nation. Merkel, leader of a nation that still bears the shame of a militarist past, has also expressed reservations about going into Syria. And Germans are outraged over Edward Snowden’s spying allegations. Given East Germany’s big brother history, invasion of privacy is a serious issue in Germany. “There is a huge outcry against the [Snowden scandal] that is emotionally more important than differences over Libya and economic stimulus,” says Dan Hamilton, executive director of the American Consortium on European Union Studies at Johns Hopkins. “I’m not sure how many in the U.S. understand the depth of anger and surprise amongst the Germans about the surveillance.”
Still, the alternative to Merkel isn’t much better. Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic Party candidate running against Merkel, would be ideologically closer to Obama: He’s called for an end to austerity and for some stimulus. But Washington got to know Steinbrück when he was finance minister in 2008 and 2009. “He didn’t make a lot of friends over here saying the economic crisis was all America’s fault, they have a problem we don’t,” Janes says. “Well, that didn’t turn out to be quite right.” Europe devolved into its own sovereign debt crisis by the 2011.
And for all her stubbornness about stimulus, Merkel’s legacy will certainly be that she kept Europe together through the crisis. “If you look across the Atlantic today and ask, ‘Who is speaking for the future of Europe?’ It’s certainly not London. [French President Francois] Hollande is holding on by his fingernails. The south is a mess. Who speaks for Europe today? I look at Merkel before even I look at Brussels,” Janes says.
All of which is why Obama probably doesn’t want to switch partners in Germany, although, of course, the U.S. government would never take an official position one way or another. “My sense is that they know her as someone who’s gone through the storm of last few years on economic front,” Janes says. “They would be surprised if she didn’t win.”
And it doesn’t hurt that Obama, who enjoys an approval rating in Germany of 70+%, gave her a little help. “Merkel pushed for Obama to come to Berlin after the Group of Eight meeting in Ireland in June,” says Szabo. “That had a good series of meetings, but she really wanted him to come to help her campaign and to profile her as a world leader.” Merkel introduced Obama on June 19 to an invitation-only crowd of 4,500, standing on the steps of — where else? — the Brandenburg Gate.