Berlin Awaits the 'Next JFK'

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Wolfgang Kumm / dpa / Landov

Senator Barack Obama will be visiting Berlin, Germany.

Walking around Berlin recently, the American visitor could be forgiven for thinking Germany was the 51st state in the Union — and that it would vote heavily for Senator Barack Obama on November 4. Joggers in local parks proudly sport Obama T shirts; the trendy expat hangout White Trash Fast Food was turned into an Obama campaign center for a day; and a city magazine has published instructions on how to craft little American flags to wave in welcoming the junior Senator from Illinois, who visits on Thursday.

The city has been buzzing with anticipation over Obama's visit, and his reported request to use the Brandenburg Gate as the backdrop for his only public address in Europe sparked a local media frenzy. Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted with "bewilderment" to the Senator's request to speak at this historically charged location and appeared concerned that approving the request would be interpreted as taking sides in the U.S. presidential race. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for his part, welcomed the suggestion that Obama speak at a venue rendered iconic by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, saying it was "a vital expression of German-American friendship."

Obama's people and Berlin authorities finally agreed to stage the speech instead in front of the Siegessäule (victory column) monument — or "Goldelse" ("Goldlizzie"), as Berliners affectionately dub it because of a golden statue of the goddess of victory that crowns the monument. Built in the second half of the 19th century to commemorate Prussian victories against the French, the Danes and Austria, the column has been a backdrop for various mass events, such as the annual "Love Parade," a huge open-air techno party. The right location, some commentators only half-jokingly remarked, for a political rock star.

While politicians bickered, however, the German people had long ago made their choice — one poll showed that 60% were in favor of Obama speaking at the Brandenburg Gate. And if Germans had a say in the U.S. election, 74% would choose Obama.

The media can barely contain their excitement. "Germany Meets the Superstar" read the front page of the weekly Der Spiegel in reference to a popular TV show, while the tabloid Bild called Obama "Berlin's New Kennedy!" and gushed, "It's like 1963," describing the presidential candidate as "just as young, sexy and charismatic" as John F. Kennedy. And that's before he's even set foot here.

Although the Kennedy name is almost inevitably invoked whenever Barack Obama is mentioned in the German media, there is more to his popularity. The cover of the current issue of Zitty, a local Berlin magazine, shows a photo of Obama accompanied by the headline "I'm black and that's a good thing" — a reference to Berlin's openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who strongly supported Obama's request to speak at the Brandenburg Gate and had once publicly announced, "I'm gay and that's a good thing." Jarring as that headline may be, it partly explains why Obama is likely to receive the warmest welcome given to any senior American politician in Berlin since Kennedy visited in 1963 and made his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

For many Germans, Obama is the embodiment of the American dream and the ideal of a land of opportunity where everyone can make it to the top regardless of race or social background. At a moment when anti-American sentiments have reached unprecedented heights in Germany — a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 30% of Germans hold a positive view of the U.S. — Obama is seen by many Germans as a symbol of change.

"Germans differentiate between America and the Bush Administration. They are not anti-American per se; on the contrary," says Andreas Etges, professor for North American studies at Free University Berlin and curator of a local museum focused on the Kennedys. "Obama, not only because of his skin color, for many, represents the other, better America."

The question now is whether Obama will be able to meet the sky-high expectations. German politicians speaking in the press have advised him against raising issues that will dampen enthusiasm, such as demanding more German soldiers to be deployed in Afghanistan — a military mission he hopes to expand. "Obama will be walking a tightrope," says Etges. "On the one hand, he wants a cheering crowd, but on the other hand can't afford to not voice any criticism at all." While the actual target of Obama's speech will be American voters watching him on television, it will still be up to the tens of thousands of Berliners expected to gather around the Siegessäule to grant Obama his "Kennedy" moment.