Editor's note: Marc Young is a Berlin-based freelance journalist covering President Barack Obama's visit for Yahoo News.
Ever since John F. Kennedy made his legendary “Ich bin ein Berliner” address almost 50 years ago to the day, Berlin has been a place to which U.S. presidents come when they have something important to say.
In 1963, JFK set down a marker that America would not yield West Berlin to the Soviets just two years after the Berlin Wall had been built. And Ronald Reagan made one of his most memorable speeches in the still-divided city in 1987, demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down that very same Cold War barrier.
Keenly aware of the gravitas a Berlin visit can lend, Barack Obama as a presidential candidate in 2008 made a passionate plea for a better world to a huge crowd of 200,000.
Now leader of the free world, President Obama gave an eagerly awaited foreign policy address in front of Berlin’s symbolic Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday morning. But with the entire center of the German capital on lockdown for the duration of his whirlwind 24-hour visit, Obama will have little opportunity to mingle with Berlin’s denizens.
Yahoo News correspondent Marc Young hit the city’s few remaining unblocked streets to find out what people thought of the presidential pomp and ask which U.S. president they considered to be the best Berliner.
Argun Vural (Marc Young)
5:05 p.m. at the Victory Column
After Obama’s speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the sun-roasted crowd quickly dispersed. But some Berliners not lucky enough to be among the 6,000 invitees were drawn to the city’s Victory Column, the site of Obama's 2008 appearance in the German capital. Argun Vural, a 42-year-old working in marketing, said he wished the event on Wednesday had been open to everyone, but he understood the security concerns.
“It’s a real shame the public couldn’t attend," he said. "But I’ve always been worried about Obama’s safety.
“I am disappointed that he hasn’t done what he promised he would. Guantanamo is still open and the killer drones are horrible. But he’s had a hard time getting anything done. He’s the right guy to be president, but at the wrong time. He’s still the best U.S. president to come along in awhile.
“But from the Berliner perspective, you just can’t top Kennedy.”
Presidential pick: JFK
2:45 p.m. at the Berlin Wall memorial
Miriam (Marc Young)
An American tour guide living in Berlin, Miriam was hurrying to quench her thirst on what’s turned out to be a real scorcher of a day just after Michelle Obama and her daughters visited the Berlin Wall memorial. The huge cross section of the former "death strip"—the land surrounding the Wall was known for its mines and snipers—is the only place to get a feel for what the city was like during the Cold War. Miriam said the Obamas, besides being escorted by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, Dr. Joachim Sauer, were with the president's half-sister.
"It’s great they came here with the family," she said. "It was a bit odd because the whole area was sealed off to the public, but there were lots of Secret Service agents looking like tourists walking around."
She added, “I’m sure JFK was impressive in Berlin and Reagan’s speech was admittedly important, but I’m a total Obama fan.”
Presidential pick: Obama
10:45 a.m. near the Ritz-Carlton hotel at Potsdamer Platz
Manfred Fiifi (Marc Young)
Once a derelict wasteland near the Berlin Wall, Potsdamer Platz is now home to shiny glass towers and the Ritz-Carlton hotel, where Obama and his family spent Tuesday night. Rumor has it that the president picked it because of its nice gym. Manfred Fiifi, a 58-year-old Berlin resident who works as a security official for an embassy, stopped by after a doctor’s appointment.
“It’s a huge operation today, but these types of visits are normal for Berliners," he said. "I’m here because of my profession; it’s interesting to see how the police are handling all this.”
(At this point, the police stop a car to let a dog sniff for explosives. One burly officer demands we step farther away, unless we want the dog "dangling from your bones…”)
“I don’t have anything against Obama. He’s doing the best he can," adds Fiifi. "I’m not disappointed in him, but I didn’t really expect that much from him either. Of course, JFK was the first U.S. president to come to Berlin, then Reagan and Obama. So I’d say Kennedy really set the standard.”
Presidential pick: JFK
10 a.m. on Unter den Linden Boulevard
Bernd Schneider (Marc Young)
The 63-year-old civil engineer for Germany’s railway took the day off to travel from Leipzig, an hour south of Berlin by train. But on the city’s grand Unter den Linden Boulevard, there was no getting any closer to the Brandenburg Gate just visible in the distance. After growing up in communist East Germany, Schneider fled to the West in 1986, just three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about," said Schneider. "I asked the police if they were getting the day off, since it’s so sunny and nice, but they really didn’t think it was that funny.
“Obama is OK. I’m not really bothered by the [National Security Agency] snooping. I grew up in East Germany, and you just can’t compare it with the Stasi [or the Ministry for State Security, the former secret police of East Germany]. I guess if I send pictures of my vacation and say, ‘The weather was the bomb,’ I’m going to be scanned. But I don’t mind if it helps stop terrorism. However, I’m pretty un-German about stuff like that.”
Presidential pick: JFK
- Barack Obama
- Michelle Obama
- Ronald Reagan