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Obama and Berlin: The end of an affair

Yesterday half of Berlin shut down in order to accommodate an old flame: Barack Obama. But are we still as smitten with POTUS as we used to be? Is it him that changed or us? John Riceburg dissects our relationship.

Image for Obama and Berlin: The end of an affair
Obama in front of the Siegessäule in 2008. Photo by Matthias Winkelmann

Summer is beginning, but an affair is coming to a close. It all started almost five years ago: he came in the sweltering days of August 2008, and back then he knew how to make us scream with passion. Nearly 200,000 people came to get a glimpse of him at the Siegessäule, and he could push all our buttons. When he mentioned ending the war in Iraq, the crowd erupted in ecstasy. If anyone had been paying attention, he actually said he was going to send more troops to Afghanistan, but it’s hard to listen closely when you’re in love.

But that was long ago. Two elections later, the passion has withered. Today, Barack Obama spoke in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Why there? It’s a supposedly official backdrop for someone who is no longer just a candidate, but rather leader of the free world. But the real reason is more simple: any pro-Obama rally these days would look tiny compared to the Love Parade-style event of 2008. So play it safe: cart in the students of the German-American John F. Kennedy School and send invitations to the political elite. You can fill 4000 seats on the small side of the Gate without admitting that Obama couldn’t fill the Tiergarten even if he offered free MDMA.

Then again, no one can muster more than a shrug against Obama either. Hundreds of thousands of Berliners went out onto the streets against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – but that was back when George Bush the Lesser was in the White House. Now silver-tongued Obama is carrying on the legacy of bumbling W.: holding prisoners in Guantanamo without trial, killing foreigners and even US citizens with flying killer robots, persecuting whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning, and just about everything else people hated about his predecessor. But people are going to keep their frustration to themselves as long as he appears to be the “lesser evil”.

On Monday, up to 500 people demonstrated at the Brandenburg Gate, chanting “Give Obama a red card.” (In this country, it’s hard to express political opposition without soccer metaphors.) This was mostly the grey-haired legions of the old-school “peace movement”, protesting against drones being steered from a command centre on German territory, but they were also joined by younger people from Occupy. The crowd had plenty to criticise about Obama’s policies: from the blockade against Cuba to the continued imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier to a possible US intervention in Syria. But this wasn’t a “mass incident”, as the Chinese call it.

On Wednesday, the Pirate Party took a different angle, focussing on the US government’s worldwide surveillance of phone calls and e-mails. This was just revealed by a whistle-blower – but what did people think the NSA was up to, anyway? Hadn’t they seen Enemy of the State with Will Smith or The Simpsons Movie? Both films give a pretty accurate description of what many people assumed the “No Such Agency” had been doing since its foundation. Pirate Anke Domscheit-Berg (featured in our October 2012 issue) told Spiegel Online: “Barack Obama seems to be afraid of the people. That fear is probably why he wants to spy on the people.” But why, really, would he be afraid of anyone if he can kill people with unmanned drones?

As Exberliner reported before the last elections, Berlin’s expat community has already cooled on Obama and the same goes for the native population. A rock star politician was going to change everything with the power of his rhetoric. But not much has changed, and the spark of love has gone out. Berlin has sunken into the ennui after break-up. That massive disappointment can almost make the unexciting but eminently reliable Merkel seem likable.