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Past comparisons overshadow Obama's Berlin visit

When he came to the German capital five years ago, Barack Obama was given a regal reception. But as he heads back to Berlin for the first time as US president, he'll find that "Obamania" is a thing of the past.

Three cover stories from Germany's leading news weekly Der Spiegel illustrate, in a nutshell, how German perceptions of US President Barack Obama have changed over the years. In 2008, shortly after voters punched his ticket to the Oval Office, Spiegel anointed Obama the "World President." Less than four years later, the austere magazine carped about a "Failed Presidency" and predicted the American electorate would send Obama packing.

Now, in the most recent issue, which came out a week in advance of Obama's first visit to Berlin as American commander-in-chief, the cover of Spiegel featured a picture of him juxtaposed with an image of John F. Kennedy. The headline read, "The Lost Friend."

The tone of the article, which argues that Germans no longer need or even want a heroic US president, is elegiac. Nonetheless, in comparison to JFK, Obama clearly comes off as the far lesser of the two leaders.

"After four-and-a-half years in office, the happy ending is nowhere in sight," wrote the article's authors. "Just as Kennedy was never truly able to complete the reconstruction of his country, Obama was condemned to disappoint - and the fact that he now seems even more hardline on questions of national security than his predecessor has above all distressed his supporters."

Cathleen Kaufmann, center, reacts with other supporters of Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. during an election party of the Democrats aboard at a cinema in central Berlin

Supporters in Berlin were elated when Obama was elected in 2008

In 2008, when Obama held a rally as a presidential candidate in front of Berlin's Victory Column, he was hailed as a savior who had appeared to rescue the world from the militarist and capitalistic excesses of the George W. Bush era. One source of disappointment, as Spiegel's mention of the ongoing surveillance scandal makes clear, is dismay at what Obama has and hasn't done in office.

But the world has also changed in the meantime. The financial crisis has demonstrated just how global the most important issues are, putting relations between a country - or even a continent - and any single nation in a new perspective.

"The Old Continent…is no longer dependent on an American knight in shining armor in dark times, and definitely not on an American rescuer," the Spiegel authors wrote. "In the 21st century, the US can't play that role anyway, even if it wanted to."

After the buzz 

Popular opinion as depicted in the media is always a simplified version of what people actually think, and there is no doubt that when Obama speaks in front of the Brandenburg Gate on June 19, he'll have a healthy and enthusiastic audience - 90 percent of Germans would have voted for him in last year's presidential election.

But the euphoria - the charge in the atmosphere - that greeted his 2008 speech simply isn't there among Germans these days.

"Maybe it's because of him, or maybe the whole political clan is at fault, but somehow that something special is gone," says Hagen, a 38-year-old event organizer. "The whole data collection scandal…I mean we always suspected that something like that was going on, but it's still shocking when it comes out."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., waves as he arrives at the Victory Column in Berlin

In 2008 Obama spoke to euphoric masses

Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is another issue that elicits ire among Germans, although many of those who cheered the then-candidate's Victory Column speech say that the president isn't to blame for their declining euphoria. Indeed, one factor may be simply generational. For instance, Meike, 34, was a passionate Obama well-wisher in 2008. Now much of that energy is consumed with raising her two-year-old daughter.

"Let's put it this way: I used to read whole articles in the newspaper whereas now I only have time for the headlines - the last thing I've seen is a Tumblr with the caption 'Obama is watching your emails,'" says Meike. "And I also think that internally a lot of people have tried to trip him up."

For many of Obama's typically young German supporters, Obama fulfilled his main promise when he withdrew US troops from Iraq and adopted at least a superficial more cooperative approach to international affairs. Hot-button issues in the US like Obama's health-care reforms, the debt ceiling or the recent Internal Revenue Service controversy don't carry much weight thousands of kilometers away from Capitol Hill.

Sober but respectful

Buttons with the images of Barack Obama and former US President John F. Kennedy

Obama will have to weather the inevitable Kennedy comparisons

In 2008, Obama originally wanted to appear before the Brandenburg Gate, but that idea was stopped by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who argued that the site was reserved for heads of state. Now Obama is getting the chance to speak at the very place where Ronald Reagan delivered his 1987 "Tear down this wall" address.

Unlike many of her fellow Germans, Merkel has always seemed somewhat skeptical of Obama's charisma.

"From the very beginning Chancellor Merkel avoided any impression of 'Obamania,'" America Expert Johannes Thimm from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told DW. "Over time Merkel and President Obama have established a sober but respectful relationship. Both know they need each other. Personal feelings about other heads of state guide Obama far less than his predecessor George W. Bush, but Obama did show that he considers the Chancellor a major ally by awarding her a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, greets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Obama and Merkel have a cool professional relationship

As top-level visits go, this one will probably be fairly relaxed, and Obama will most likely enjoy a respite from his domestic battles in a country where he still enjoys favorability ratings well in excess of 50 percent. But against the backdrop of the surveillance scandal and a national election here in Germany there will nonetheless be a few uneasy moments.

"Thus far nothing is known about the agenda of the talks," Thimm said. "The National Security Agency's data-snooping will definitely be discussed because Merkel is up for reelection and can't afford to ignore public outrage about the revelations. But the focus will likely be on the economic crisis in Europe, the proposed transatlantic free-trade treaty (TTIP) or how to deal with the conflict in Syria."

Obama's speech before the Brandenburg Gate will no doubt deal with far broader topics - and inevitably invite comparisons with JFK and Reagan. It is certainly not beyond the realm of imagination that the US President, who is no mean orator, will pull off an emotional "Ich bin ein Berliner" moment. The euphoria surrounding Obama's first electoral triumph may have dissipated, without the president being able to use it fully. But as his second term wears on, Obama will gradually be making the transition from trying to exploit his potential to attempting to cement his legacy.

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