Saying he had come to Berlin "not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world," presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama on Thursday night gave a soaring address that invoked echoes of the famous speeches in this city in which John F. Kennedy made common cause with Berliners against communist oppression in 1963 and Ronald Reagan called nearly 20 years ago to tear down the Berlin Wall.
"The greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another," Obama said to cheers from a crowd that Berlin police estimated at more than 200,000, which had gathered in the city's central park, the Tiergarten, and stretched toward the Brandenburg Gate, about a mile away, where Reagan had spoken. From where the presidential candidate stood, atop a stage onto which he had taken a long walk alone, he could see tens of thousands of people crowded onto the Seventeenth of June Boulevard, named for a 1953 uprising against the East German government.
"The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand," Obama declared. "The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down. We know they have fallen before."
Obama's speech at the Victory Column was also a not-so-veiled rebuke to the go-it-alone foreign policy approach of President George W. Bush. He lamented that Americans and Europeans "have drifted apart and forgotten our shared destiny," rather than regarding each other as "allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other."
"I know my country has not perfected itself," Obama said. "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. But I also know how much I love America."
The speech was the public capstone of a weeklong foreign trip that has amounted to an audition on the world stage for Obama. As such, it also sent a message to critics who say the 46-year-old freshman Senator from Illinois is not strong enough or experienced enough to take the helm of the world's last remaining superpower at a time when it faces a new kind of enemy.
"This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it," Obama said, his voice echoing from the trees on a picture-perfect summer evening that was washed in diaphanous light. "If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York. If we could win a battle of ideas against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope."
After the speech was over, the candidate, in a celebratory mood, joined his campaign staff and the press corps traveling with him for dinner and a very dry vodka martini with olives at a downtown Berlin restaurant. Polls have suggested that Obama enjoys overwhelming support over Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain among Europeans, though that has not always been an asset to Democratic presidential candidates in the recent past. Indeed the McCain campaign, which hasn't hidden its frustration this week at the media saturation coverage of the Obama world tour, didn't wait long after the speech to put out a statement scoffing at the whole exercise. "While Barack Obama took a premature victory lap today in the heart of Berlin, proclaiming himself a 'citizen of the world,' John McCain continued to make his case to the American citizens who will decide this election," the statement read. "Barack Obama offered eloquent praise for this country, but the contrast is clear. John McCain has dedicated his life to serving, improving and protecting America. Barack Obama spent an afternoon talking about it."
Berliners lined up to hear the speech more than five hours before it began. All day long, hundreds waited on the streets to catch a glimpse of the motorcade that shuttled Obama among meetings with German officials, starting with Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German leader had objected to Obama's reported original plan to give what would have amounted to a campaign speech at the historic Brandenburg Gate. (Indeed, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. embassy in Berlin instructed foreign service personnel stationed there not to attend Obama's public rally, which the State Department labeled a "partisan political activity" prohibited under its regulations.)
Merkel posed for pictures with Obama before the two retreated for a private session at the Chancellory that lasted a little under an hour. Obama campaign strategist Robert Gibbs said in a statement that Obama's "warm and productive conversation" with Merkel touched on a wide range of foreign policy topics but included a particular focus on "the urgency of stopping Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons."
That was likely to have been the most sensitive topic. Several weeks ago, it was reported that some senior European leaders were unhappy with Obama's proposal for the U.S. to talk directly with high-level Iranians. The fear on this side of the Atlantic is that such a move would short-circuit the three-year-old European-led effort to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear ambitions in exchange for political and economic benefits. More recently, however, there have been signals from some Europeans that they are satisfied that Obama would not begin any negotiations that would undercut the current diplomatic effort.
He also met with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Berlin mayor Kalsu Wowereit, a strong Obama supporter who presented him with a statue of a bear, the city's symbol. On Friday, Obama continues his foreign trip with a stop in Paris, before embarking on a final leg to Britain.