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United States

Obama's speech disappointed - in a good way

Barack Obama's speech at the Brandenburg Gate won’t go down in history. But for DW's Jefferson Chase - an American in Berlin - there's much to like about a low-key US president.

A week or two ago, when a friend asked me about my reaction to the emerging National Security Agency scandal, I said jokingly, "I still like Obama - even if he's reading my emails."

There are legitimate reasons to be disappointed with Barack Obama, the 44th American president and the United States' first-ever African-American head of state. Nonetheless, he remains the only person I've ever voted for in a national election. For better or worse, he's my generation's Kennedy, and I bet history will look far more favorably upon him than his critics do right now.

It was inauspicious timing that Obama headed to Berlin just as the NSA revelations were breaking, especially as data privacy is such a hot issue here. But to be honest I can't get all that exercised about the snooping. More than any other world leader, Obama has to take responsibility for trying to ward off terrorist attacks, so to my mind it stands to reason that he'd give his intelligence agencies a fairly long leash.

Moreover, the idea of Facebook users fretting about meta-data programs like PRISM is pretty rich. It's like fans at a live ice-hockey game grousing about the minuscule chance of getting hit in the face by the puck.

Perhaps the spying controversy was one reason Obama's visit to Berlin, culminating in a flat speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate, seemed somewhat of a letdown. But you only need to think back to five years ago to realize what a welcome letdown Barack Obama has proven to be.

Invited guests await the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama in front of the Brandenburg Gate

As a backdrop, the Brandenburg Gate was less impressive than the Victory Column

Better off now than then

A global economy that was in danger of plunging off a cliff, the world's most powerful country at odds with nearly all its supposed allies, and the planet's most dangerous religious fanatic still at large and inspiring followers... That was the reality in 2008, when Obama, then the presidential challenger, wowed the masses at Berlin's Victory Column.

His speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate, with only 6,000 specially-invited guests, may have paled in comparison. But the sort of economic disaster that seemed possible in 2008 has been averted, the US and Europe are working together again, no major new wars have been started, and Osama bin Laden no longer exists. So I for one can live without the snappy soundbites.

The difference between then and now reflects the gulf between a candidate dreaming of what he could do and a leader forced to calculate what he can do. And that's reason to temper any disappointment in what the Obama administration has been able to achieve.

True, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has not been closed, but there's every reason to believe that the worst sorts of abuses there have been discontinued. And while the United States is hardly the greenest country in the world, at least the government is headed by a man who appreciates the potential of environmental technology and the need not to completely alter the climate.

I was far more roused by Obama's speech in 2008. But I'm far happier as an American and as someone living on this planet in 2013.

A Turkish-German girl holds up a welcoming placard as she watches U.S. President Barack Obama

Obama's last visit to Berlin was as a presidential candidate, in 2008

A prescient pragmatist

The main focus of Obama's speech - his desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world - was a safe choice. Who would argue for more doomsday devices?

Yet it's also an agenda that Obama has pushed consistently since being elected. Nuclear disarmament may not be the headline issue it was during the Cold War, but a worrisome amount of radioactive material is still around. Play out the worst-case scenarios, and Obama's efforts to get this source of potential catastrophe under control look nothing short of prescient.

Most Germans - and an astonishing number of German journalists who present themselves as experts on the US - don't really understand how American politics work. Power is much more fluid in the US, where the two main political parties are more coalitions of interests than the hierarchical, self-reinforcing institutions common to parliamentary systems.

For the majority of his time in office, Obama has been saddled with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and in particular with a cadre of far-right Tea Party activists that make George W. Bush look like a moderate. No one should blame Obama for compromising in an (often futile) attempt to work with the other political side.

In the run-up to Obama's speech in Berlin, the media was full of obligatory Kennedy comparisons, and this US president did not pull off any one-liners comparable to JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" or Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

The nice thing was that neither Germany nor the US - nor indeed the world - actually needed him to.

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