WASHINGTON: Last time Barack Obama wanted Angela Merkel's help getting elected, she rebuffed a seemingly modest request from the junior senator from Illinois to hold a presidential campaign rally at Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate.
Four years on, and the favour the president is asking of the chancellor could hardly be bigger: get thriving Germany to spend Europe out of a slump that is dragging down the global economy and could well sink Obama's chances of re-election in November.
A year and a day after he awarded Merkel America's highest civil honour, a seeming token of his high expectations for her cooperation, Obama on Friday again told European leaders they had an “urgent need to act” to resolve a debt crisis that has pitted a buoyant Germany against EU neighbours facing recession.
But Merkel, aware that appearing to bail out spendthrift foreigners can sink her conservatives' own re-election hopes, shows little sign of being more helpful than when she sniffed that Obama’s plan for a 2008 campaign stop in Berlin was “odd”.
So can the man who nonetheless charmed 200,000 other Germans that day, echoing Berlin's favourite American John F.
Kennedy in a speech given in a city park, now persuade Merkel to heed pleas from her European Union peers for a little more fiscal stimulus?
For the answer, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to learn the body language, tune in to the “mood music” of Obama and Merkel's exchanges and decode the cryptic diplomatic signals between Bundeskanzlerin and White House.
One conclusion sources close to both leaders agree on is that, while the relationship lacks the warmth of Merkel’s with George W. Bush (Obama's predecessor is still a YouTube hit with him massaging the German leader's neck), the pair have plenty in common, not least a competitive streak and a somewhat chilly, calculating manner that should not be confused with antipathy.
“He and Merkel are very similar characters to be honest,” one German official said of Obama.
“They both need to prove to each other who knows more about any given subject. “But they have a high regard for each other.”
Obama aides tend to agree, saying he values Merkel's “directness”, a German trait some of her European diplomatic counterparts find can verge on the rude, and that the White House understands the domestic electoral constraints on her.
The two are both in their way outsiders — the first black US president and Germany's first woman leader, the one-term senator and the scientist from the communist east.
Aides also say they share an intellectual wariness of the politics of personality, however much they may have played on their uncommon backgrounds for electoral benefit in the past.
Yet as Merkel digs in to defend Germans' reluctance to spend their way out of Europe's troubles, and less than five months until America votes, her four years of familiarity with Obama — a longer relationship than most among today's leaders — and an ability to work together at speed, could be crucial for two leaders who have both been criticised for taking to long to act.
Conceding that Merkel's team are conscious of intense attention from Washington, one German official familiar with recent exchanges said: “Pressure on Germany is very high.”
Yet a laconic, monosyllabic exchange at the start of last month's Camp David G8 summit spoke of that no-nonsense spirit in private: Obama greeted the chancellor with just, “Angela.”
Merkel replied: “Mr President.”
“How have you been?” Obama inquired.
She simply shrugged.
Obama: “Well, you have a few things on your mind.”
One White House official described the wider Merkel-Obama dialogue as pragmatic and efficient: “When they talk, they can pick up where they left off. They also will report back to each other about other relevant meetings or conversations.
“They're both pragmatists. They get right down to business when they talk and get into detail about trying to solve various problems.”
That means, insiders say, that past frictions — from the unusually public snub over Obama's Berlin campaign stop to Merkel’s rejection of military action in Libya last year — count for little, or at least less than for more emotional characters.
What matters, both sides say, is an ever more interdependent global economy that can determine national elections worldwide.
“The one startling new facet of the transatlantic relationship is a very deep economic and financial integration,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller, who runs the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a body whose founders commemorated US aid to Europe after World War Two and which works to promote understanding between the two continents. —Reuters