Barack Obama Berlin Speech: No Rock Star Reception This Time


Five years after speaking in front of jubilant and expectant crowds in the German capital while on the presidential campaign trail, President Barack Obama returned to Berlin again on Wednesday. 

The jubilation and anticipation that greeted Obama's 2008 speech was nowhere near as evident on Wednesday, with a much smaller and much more reserved crowd watching the President speak in front of Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate. Just as in 2008, Obama peppered his speech with flowery rhetoric. Yet people in Germany, as in the U.S. and around the world, are now much more wary of getting carried away by just words.

Prior to the speech he briefly addressed the recent revelations regarding the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance programs at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. During his 2013 speech, Obama renewed his previous call for a reduction in the world's nuclear weapons stockpiles, calling for a reduction of "our deployed nuclear weapons by up to 1/3." 

Back in 2008, the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland described the scene that greeted candidate Obama in Berlin:

"The young and the pierced, some with guitars slung over their shoulders, others barefoot, jammed up against each other to cheer on a man who in less than a year has become the world's most popular serving politician, even if, as yet, he has been elected to no office grander than the junior Senate seat for Illinois."

Expectations, Freedland noted, "had been impossibly high." But not this time. As the Tom McCarthy of the Guardian pointed out, on Wednesday it was "not the same rosy scene."

On Wednesday, Obama spoke before 4,000 invited guests. Back in 2008, Obama received a reception fit for a rock star, with warm-up bands and DJs playing before he took the stage in front of an estimated 200,000 people. The stark contrast between the two receptions highlights one of the key enduring realities of Obama's presidency since he took office: That his rhetoric and promise of change has not been matched by his actions.

In 2008, Obama promised a change from the America of George W. Bush, speaking about issues such as the threat of nuclear weapons, genocide in Dafur, and violence and poverty in Somalia, he noted that "no one nation, no matter how large or how powerful, can defeat such challenges alone," announcing that it was time for Europe and America to "to join together, through constant meet the challenges of the 21st century." A break from the unilateralism of the Bush era seemed imminent. Furthermore, Obama also admitted that America's did not always live up to its belief it its own exceptionalism and status as the greatest nation on Earth:

"I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions."

The feeling in Berlin, and indeed much of the world, at the time was that there would be a marked change in American politics and foreign policy if Obama was elected.

Five years later, however, as the Iraq and Afghan wars have dragged on, the Guantanamo Bay prison camp has remained open despite Obama's repeated calls to close it, the global war on terror, including drone strikes and special military operations, has continued to expand, the Obama administration has engaged in an ongoing and unprecedented war on whistle-blowers, and the U.S. surveillance state continues to spy on millions of people, it is what has not changed that has come to define Obama's presidency. Earlier on Wednesday, the German newspaper Taz, evoking former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's famous call in Berlin to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall, called on Obama to "open this gate," next to a picture of Guantanamo Bay. How times have changed, or more accurately, how so much has not changed, since his 2008 speech.

Obama treated Berliners to some of his famous flowery rhetoric, saying that "the wall belongs to history, but we have history to make as well. And the heroes that came before us now call to us to live up to our highest ideals."

And while he reiterated his call to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and to continue to tackle nuclear proliferation, it is much harder to get excited and expectant about significant change after five years of Obama.

The Guardian's Kate Connolly summed up Obama's speech on Wednesday as "underwhelming." But while the tone of his speech was underwhelming compared to 2008, it is his actions, more so than his rhetoric, which have been the most underwhelming since his election. People are increasingly jaded after five years of broken promises and action falling behind rhetoric, and this was evident in Berlin on Wednesday.