Obama loses German hearts and minds ahead of Berlin visit

Editor's Note: Marc Young, an American journalist based in Berlin, is covering President Barack Obama's visit for Yahoo News.

BERLIN—When Barack Obama last visited Berlin back in 2008, Constanze Fröhlich felt like she was part of history.

“He was about to become the first black president—I wanted to support that,” the 35-year-old university researcher told Yahoo News. “It was really amazing so many people were there.”

Back then, in a surprising outpouring of Teutonic affection for Obama, a euphoric crowd of 200,000 turned up to hear the Democratic presidential contender speak in the German capital.

“People of the world: Look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one,” he told the rapturous masses. “This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom.”

But five years later, Germany’s love affair with the U.S. president has gone cold.

Obama can still expect Chancellor Angela Merkel to give him a grand reception on his official two-day visit. But his high-profile speech on Wednesday in front of the city’s Brandenburg Gate—almost exactly 50 years after John F. Kennedy’s historic “Ich bin ein Berliner” address—will be given to a vetted audience of only a few thousand.

And it’s doubtful hundreds of thousands would have turned up to listen to Obama had it been open to the public anyway. Average Germans these days appear at best mildly disillusioned and at worst deeply angry with the man who promised hope and change.

“I thought it was great that he became president. But there’s more distance now. He’s been consumed by daily politics,” said Fröhlich.

In 2008, Obama’s candidacy represented everything Germans love about America: its tolerant society and limitless potential. He also offered a chance to put the trans-Atlantic animosity of the George W. Bush years in the past by embracing issues dear to German hearts: global warming, closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and ending the war in Iraq.

But with Guantanamo still open, Obama under fire for sanctioning lethal drone attacks abroad, and recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s global electronic surveillance programs, many Germans are taking to the streets and the Internet to protest his visit.

While thousands have gone online to vent their frustration on Twitter using the #GreetObama hashtag, several hundred leftists staged a colorful demonstration on Monday afternoon in Berlin.

Under sunny blue skies, Obama was bashed for everything from the NSA’s spying to failing to end racism in the United States. The stage was even adorned with a poster showing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttering his famous line, “I have a dream.” Underneath was Obama saying, “I have a drone.”

While two pensioners held aloft a banner reminding Obama that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, one man, who refused to give his name, wore a handwritten sign around his neck with a warning about the particularly German concern of personal privacy: “Democracy: Citizens watch government. Tyranny: Government watches citizens.”

Standing nearby, Jochem Visser said he had waited patiently three hours to see Obama speak in 2008. But five years later, the 37-year-old activist wasn’t eagerly awaiting Obama’s return to the German capital.

“Many progressive people in Europe hoped something would change, but he’s just continued with the same old American power politics,” Visser told Yahoo News.

Christian Lammert, a political expert at the JFK Institute of Berlin’s Free University, said much of disenchantment with Obama stemmed from unfamiliarity with the U.S. political system.

“A lot of people are unaware he just can’t turn this huge tanker on a dime,” Lammert said, adding that it would be difficult for Obama to match the memorable foreign policy addresses made in Berlin by Kennedy in 1963 and Ronald Reagan 24 years later.

“He’s on the defensive. I don’t expect a great speech. There will be some nice pictures and pretty words about the trans-Atlantic alliance.”

Though many Germans still clearly prefer Obama to his Republican opponents in the U.S., the latest disclosures about the NSA’s seemingly insatiable appetite for surveillance have tested their loyalties. Even the country’s biggest newspaper, Bild, mocked his enthusiastic campaign slogan “Yes we can!” by changing it to “Yes, we scan.”

“Of course I’m disappointed. Like everyone else, I had big hopes for Obama,” said Steffen Wenzel from Politik-digital.de, a public service platform promoting democratic discourse online. “Things have taken on an Orwellian dimension. If someone in Germany writes something critical about the U.S. government, will it affect their ability to enter the United States?”

But Obama’s loss of many hearts and minds doesn’t mean his critics have entirely given up on the U.S.

“The anti-Americanism here is against American politics,” Berlin protester Visser said, holding up a brown shopping bag. “I just came from American Apparel, so I’m certainly not against American workers.”