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Obama's visit much more than 'Goodbye, Berlin'

November 18, 2016

Following Donald Trump's victory in the US elections, President Barack Obama appears to be pursuing one last political mission. And he needs Angela Merkel for it.

Deutschland | US-Präsident Obama wird von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel in Empfang genommen
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

Barack Obama likes Angela Merkel. More than that, he appreciates her beyond all measure and doesn't make a big deal of it. This is how the US President already came across during his last visit to Germany in April, and a half-year later he even upstaged himself: Obama said that he could not even have imagined a more grounded and reliable partner in world politics for the past eight years. The Chancellor, he said, is his ally and his friend.

"Germans should appreciate her," he said.

Americans are, of course, well-known for their enthusiasm: things tend to become wonderful and great very quickly for them. However: firstly, Barack Obama does not tend towards exaggeration. Secondly, we also should remember that after Donald Trump's election victory as the next US president, the "New York Times" referred to Angela Merkel as "the Liberal West's last defender."

Quo vadis, world?

In the US, the dice have now been thrown. In Europe, they will be rolled in 2017. Elections will be held in France, the Netherlands and Germany. In each of the three countries, right wing populists are clearly on the rise; Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders and Frauke Petry have all hailed Trump's win. Russian President Vladimir Putin joins them in joyous celebration. Next year, the Brits plan to formally file their exit from the European Union. Brexit pioneer Nigel Farage has even already been to visit President-elect Donald Trump in New York.

Is this what the political future looks like? Are populists going to be in charge of the world's fate as of 2017? Obama won't settle for that. But while he issued emphatic warnings against Trump ahead of the elections, he now has to pull himself together. The transfer of power has to go off without a hitch. Those are the rules of democracy. Obama says that this democracy remains strong: in other words, the US has seen worse.

Kinkartz Sabine Kommentarbild App
Sabine Kinkartz, DW editor

Merkel to save the world?

But on top of the protocol of handing over his office and its duties, Obama appears to be in pursuit of a final political mission. He wants to save what can be saved, counting on Merkel to help - on a global scale - to minimize all conceivable damage. As a "cornerstone of international politics," as Obama once called her before, Merkel would be a resilient constant. As someone who knows how to deal with Putin, she might be the right person to stand up to Trump as well.

We have to bear this in mind in order to fully understand the motivation behind Obama singing the Chancellor's praises. He wants to bolster Merkel and encourage her to run again for office in 2017. The exiting US President is also calling on Germans to show more appreciation for the Chancellor. He knows that Merkel lost a great deal of her approval ratings in the past year, both in her role as Chancellor and also as the leader of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Obama mentioned he wouldn't meddle in the politics of other countries, yet he jokingly added that if he were German, he might vote for her.

But will she run?

What about Angela Merkel? The chancellor is not exactly known to be the kind of person who can appreciate such songs of praise. She is way too sober for that. She can tolerate praise at the best of times, barely mustering up a wry sort of smile. Besides, Obama's accolades come with a lot of baggage: after 12 years in power, does Angela Merkel even still have the strength to remain the defender of the liberal West? Does she have the strength to hold her ground against the Trumps, the Le Pens, the Erdogans and the Putins of this world? Merkel has not made any official announcements to that end and has left any prospect of another candidacy open. But she knows she can't take her time.