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  • Seymour Gris: Obama’s last visit


Seymour Gris: Obama’s last visit

Obama's farewell presidential tour to Berlin filled us with melancholy and some dread.

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Still taken from whitehouse.gov

Barack Obama has come and gone. This was his final visit to Berlin as US president. A jumble of thoughts and impressions clutter my mind.

The German media cover every detail, live-blogging and live-streaming the whole show. I watch Obama arriving. The image of a black man stepping out of Air Force One walking past a row of white soldiers on the Tegel tarmac is still somehow striking and moving. I try to picture the man with the blonde mop of hair and the smug smirk performing the same rituals of statesmanship. It’s difficult.

There’s Obama rolling from Tegel to the Adlon Hotel in The Beast, the tank-like presidential Cadillac – which travels in its own plane and has a horendous fuel efficiency of 3.7 to 8 miles per gallon (64 to 29 L/100 km). Is that the right message to send on climate change? The Berlin police tweet some jokes about The Beast being a “dirty diesel” and not having the correct emissions inspection sticker.

Berliners are flattered with another visit by “their” Obama. In our minds, he is still a JFK for the 21st century. German newspaper opinion writers express their Wehmut for Obama. Melancholy or nostalgia. Since his 2008 campaign speech before 200,000 jubulent Berliners at the Victory Column, we’ve somehow claimed him as our own and even now a tiny crumb of “Hope” remains for us Berliners as we’re faced with Trump to the west, Putin to the east, Brexit to the north and the refugee and euro crises to the south.

Obama visits us – not London, Paris or Rome – on his lame duck farewell tour. Is this really the “passing of the baton” from Obama to Angela Merkel as the new “leader of the free world” and torchbearer of democratic values during the coming Trump era? In their joint press conference on Thursday, Obama seems to suggest as much by repeatedly stressing the stability and reliability of Germany under the stewardship of Angela Merkel, hammering on about their shared belief in Western values.

At some point during the press conference Obama says that if he were German he might consider giving his vote to Angela Merkel. What was that about foreign powers interfering with domestic elections? And I thought the US Democrats were supposed to be the natural allies of the SPD. If I was Sigmar Gabriel, I’d be pissed off by that endorsement. Obama could have kept his mouth shut.

No street demonstrations accompany this visit. Past US presidents – especially Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush – were greeted by demos and riots in Germany. What about TTIP, Guantanamo, the drone war, NSA? Is the tapping of Angela Merkel’s phone water under the bridge? Is Obama off the hook on these issues thanks to the greater evil, Mr. Trump?

Other questions pertaining to the Trump presidency on this rainy November day: What is to become of NATO? Will Germany be pressured by Trump into becoming a significant military power again? Will Merkel be able to bring some unified purpose back to the European Union in the face of growing nationalism everywhere we look? Will the coming German edition of Breitbart News be able to agitate German “deplorables” and mobilise social media enough to swing next year’s Bundestag elections in favour of the AfD?

Scary stuff. I admit it, I’m going to miss President Obama a little bit.