In Search of Merbama

Will Barack Obama's wooing of the German chancellor pay dividends in November?


BERLIN – It was a romantic setting on the first day of the G-20 — a man and a woman speaking closely near a beach in Los Cabos.

But the couple with their heads pressed together has a history rooted in rancor, and though it’s thawed somewhat — with their seaside conversation, touching on the eurozone crisis and Syria, a symbol of closer ties — the relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains tepid.

"On a scale of one to 10, I would give this relationship a five or a six," says Heather A. Conley, Europe director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I don’t think it’s as positive as has been suggested publicly and in the media."

Obama is famously aloof from other world leaders. Merkel is among the few he has cited personally, albeit awkwardly, as someone who has "a lot of trust and confidence" in his leadership. At last year’s state dinner in her honor, according to the New York Times, Obama served German apple strudel and James Taylor sang "You’ve Got a Friend" before the two leaders clinked glasses.

There have been no embarrassing backrub moments, but beyond surface gestures, the two leaders’ relationship seems anything but warm. Four months from the polls, that could spell trouble for Obama. Support from the de facto chief executive of Europe will be crucial to a president struggling to right a sinking global economic ship and sell voters on his jobs agenda.

"The re-election is going to turn on the economy, and if Merkel could buy him time more time by holding off the euro crisis and sparing the economy, it could help him in the election," says Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund. "I think people are so pessimistic about Obama’s handling of the economy [that] one more thing could send them over to Romney. And Obama absolutely shares that view."

In Mexico, said White House spokesman Jay Carney, the two leaders "agreed to work closely together… to build support for what needs to be done in Europe and the world to stabilize the situation and support growth and jobs."

The words were comforting. But Conley says they mask "a deep misunderstanding and growing frustration on both sides. Obama believes that Merkel does not fully realize what’s at stake for him, and she thinks he doesn’t understand what’s at stake for the future of Europe and that there’s more here than his re-election.

"And more talks and phone calls are not going to address that."

As Merkel and playboy former French president Nicolas Sarkozy struggled to hoist up their continent, they were able to overcome substantial differences to forge a firm personal and political friendship, if not quite solve Europe’s deepening economic malaise.

But Germany’s Iron Lady has much less to gain from a better relationship with Obama, an ocean away, than she did with bordering France.

If he wants to snuggle up to his German counterpart before November’s elections, he is, much like a man in courtship, going to have to do most of the work.

"Germany and France are locked into a relationship and it’s much more important to Merkel than the U.S. relationship," Conley says. Since the start of the crisis, "it’s a different geopolitical environment and the U.S. is even more distant than it used to be."

Gains have been made — the fuzzy state dinner moments in the Rose Garden, his awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, more frequent phone calls — and the requisite smiley photos have been flashed around the world. But it’s not been enough to earn the duo a cheeky nickname — a la "Merkozy" — or best-friend plaudits.

The bad blood dates back to 2007, when Merkel reportedly refused to allow then-candidate Obama, on a European campaign swing, to give a speech at Berlin’s illustrious Brandenburg Gate (he spoke at the nearby Victory Column instead).

Her party line was that only heads of state could speak at the gate. And she did not want to be seen as favoring the opposition candidate at a time when George W. Bush was still in office. The decision not to re-visit Berlin his first year in office also rankled Merkel, Germany watchers say. But bygones are bygones, and since the misstep Conley says both "have been working pretty hard over the past three years to build a constructive relationship and develop that personal dynamic."

The highlight was last year’s state visit, during which she says Obama "tried immensely. But both are highly pragmatic, not emotive, so trying to focus on the personal is, for them, not the way to go." (The effort paid off, if just for the night; Merkel reportedly told him he was welcome to speak at any gate he pleased should he come back to Berlin.)

In the last three years, they’ve found common ground on foreign policy, particularly no-nonsense approaches on Iran and Syria.

"They talk quite a bit," Szabo adds. "He trusts her judgment because unlike Sarkozy, she’s a lot like him — a steady, rational kind of person."

He compares them to pointy-eared Star Trek creatures known for their ability to live by logic and reason and without any emotional entanglement.

"They’re both kind of like vulcans. If vulcans have personal relationships, they’ve got a pretty decent one. But at the end of the day, they’ll make their own policies and if they go against each other, so be it."

After Obama took office and the eurozone continued its slow slide, their economic ideologies bifurcated. (Ironically, Merkel’s economic ideology more closely mirrors that of Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, who has railed against European social welfare states.)

It’s been a major hurdle on the road to "Oberkel." (Merbama?)

Obama has called the economic crisis "the defining issue of our time." He favors a Keynesian approach, but his emphasis on deficit spending and rising income taxes for millionaires has left swing voters cold. Merkel, wrapping herself in the mantle of the frugal Swabian house frau, has steadfastly preached fiscal austerity and tough love as her European neighbors have faltered.

"What Obama wants is the crisis to be resolved immediately, and that’s what he’s wanted for the last year," Conley says. "But she’s been extremely consistent saying that this is going to take a restructuring of the EU, that the crisis is going to get deeper. That’s worrying the White House considerably."

There have been signs of economic life in America, including a creeping job growth rate, though the gains have been so uneven that if the economic situation changes even a little in Europe, it will affect the trend lines stateside. Obama needs all the help he can get. Last week, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 38 percent of undecided voters favored Obama’s economic policies, while 54 percent remained unimpressed.

So the two leaders find themselves — and their competing mindsets — enmeshed.

"While he’s urged her to move away a little bit from very strict policies, he’s not going to change her opinion," says Jan Techau, the Brussels-based director of Carnegie Europe. "The influence he has in European domestic affairs is very limited, and vice versa."

In Los Cabos, each leader was headstrong: the president in his desire to see more decisive action in the U.S. interest; the chancellor with her reminder that there be "no loosening" on economic reform steps.

The White House said Obama left the meeting feeling "encouraged." Merkel, however, was characteristically silent.

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