Germany’s Angela Merkel and President Obama on friendly terms during state visit

Sooooo, it’s Angela and Barack now.

This Angela and this Barack — better known as German Chancellor Merkel and President Obama — haven’t always appeared to be the best of buds. She wouldn’t let him speak at the Brandenburg Gate during his campaign; he passed on her invitation to a ceremony celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But, on Tuesday, amid all the pomp leading up to Obama’s fourth state dinner, the president and the chancellor seemed intent — very, very, very intent — on displaying a kind of chumminess and familiarity out of keeping with their customarily cool and detached demeanors. In the course of a 39-minute news conference, Barack — er, Mr. President — referred to Merkel by her first name no less than 11 times. (He even pronounced it correctly: ON-guh-luh, not AEN-juh-luh.) She called him “Barack” at least four times. Once it was even “dear Barack.”

Obama made sure to tell the crowd in the East Room of the White House that he and Merkel had supped together the night before “one-on-one,” in case anyone missed the photos of them outside the elegant Georgetown restaurant 1789. He paid no mind when her cellphone appeared to ring at the podium during their news conference. And when Merkel stumbled over something as they were entering the East Room, Obama was there to steady her.

That’s quite a leap in coziness. During two joint news conferences back in 2009, for instance, the leaders referred to each other by their first names exactly, well, zero times, according to transcripts.

Why the big show of friendliness?

In other words, how’d the chancellor and the president become Angela and Barack?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a senior policy programs director at the German-Marshall Fund of the United States, was mulling the question even before the leaders stepped to the microphone. He was counting up “red carpet” moments on Merkel’s schedule: a private dinner with the president, a lunch with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 19-gun salute, the state dinner.

“What more can you do?” Kleine-Brockhoff wondered. “This is not so much about the concrete agenda but the symbolism of the visit. The symbolism is rich.”

Kleine-Brockhoff and many other observers figure the United States is eager to line up more close partners in Europe, adding a “key interlocutor” on issues as varied as the conflicts in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and the response to financial meltdowns in Greece, Spain and Portugal.

The German-Marshall Fund’s Stephen Szabo suspects that the Obama administration is making such a show of Merkel’s visit because it is coming to the realization that Germany “is now clearly the most powerful and important power in Europe” due to its economic might. Even though up until now Merkel has been “a reluctant partner at best,” Szabo says, the United States recognizes the need to lean on Germany to maintain European stability while turning its attentions to problems elsewhere in the world. Obama “hopes that by treating Merkel as Europe’s leader she will start to act like it,” Szabo says. And Merkel, many observers figure, might be a nice fit for the job of uber-buddy for Obama.

“Both are not the warm and fuzzy people, the huggy-bear politicians,” said Claus Gramckow of the Washington-based Naumann Foundation. “Obama is very deliberate; she is a trained physicist.”

An argument could be made that Merkel — who oversees the world’s fourth-largest economy — is the most powerful woman in the world, or at least one of the most powerful. But here she might be best known for her stunned and awkward reaction when then-President George W. Bush rubbed her neck and shoulders at the 2006 G-8 summit in St. Petersburg.

There were no surprise massages on Tuesday. Instead, there was ego massaging. “It’s obvious neither of us looks exactly like the leaders who preceded us,” America’s first African American president said to Germany’s first female chancellor. The crowd roared with laughter.

Merkel is also the first chancellor since the reunification of Germany to grow up in the formerly communist East. Her father was a Protestant pastor, and she is fluent in Russian.

She ascended to the chancellor’s office in November 2005 after rising in the ranks of the once-male-dominated Christian Democratic Union party. She has twice managed to form coalitions with opposing parties to maintain power. “She is a very smart, tough political operator, who overcame unbelievable odds,” Craig Kennedy, president of the German-Marshall Fund, said.

Now in her second term, Merkel arrived in the United States after a “tough few months,” Kennedy said. At home, she’s suffered politically from a perception that she has “dithered” about European bailouts and for reversing her stance on extending a phaseout of nuclear power in Germany following the Japanese earthquake. In the United States, she was criticized when Germany abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote on imposing a no-fly zone in Libya. Then, in the days before her U.S. trip, a mysterious E. coli breakout claimed more than 20 lives and sickened hundreds.

Merkel is partial to brightly colored but lumpy suit jackets, like the teal number she wore with black pants and low heels to the arrival ceremony on Tuesday. She wears her blond hair brushed close to her head — no pouf for her. At the news conference, she was mostly expressionless, her mouth set in a kind of perma-frown that seems to be the natural state of her face.

She is known for her unassuming ways, which is one of the reasons there was such a fuss when she wore a low-cut dress to the opera in Oslo several years ago. “All of a sudden, she had cleavage!” Gramckow said. “People were kind of shocked.”

When Merkel became chancellor, she opted to continue living in her apartment in a Berlin neighborhood that used to be in East Germany rather than move into the official residence. People who know her use words like “accessible,” “engaging,” “witty” and “authentic” to describe her persona away from large public events.

Merkel, whose maiden name was Kasner, kept the last name of her first husband, whom she divorced in 1982. She is now married to a quantum chemist named Joachim Sauer, who is so reticent to appear in public that some in the German press nicknamed him “the Phantom of the Opera” after he was spotted with her at an opera performance.

True to form, Sauer was not at the grand arrival ceremony on Tuesday, though he was expected to attend the state dinner. “He likes to keep a distance,” said Dieter Dettke, an expert on Germany.

Also unseen, during the ceremony and afterwards, was Bo — the Portuguese water dog who resides at the White House. It has been widely reported that Merkel is uncomfortable around big dogs. When she visited then-Soviet leader Vladimir Putin, many commentators speculated that he tried to intimidate her by allowing his large, black Labrador to pad through the room.

A White House spokesman didn’t respond when queried about Bo’s whereabouts. Undisclosed location? Doggie no-go zone? We may never know.

What we do know is that Angela and Barack want everyone to understand they’re the bestest of friends now. An­gela’s even thinking Barack ought to come to Berlin. She’s even picked a spot for his visit: the Brandenburg Gate.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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