HANOVER, Germany — German Chancellor Angela Merkel was asked Sunday to reminisce about her fondest moments with President Obama during the seven years of his presidency.
Her short, remarkably unsentimental answer explains why she has become Obama’s closest overseas ally and the president’s political and ideological soul mate on critical issues such as Syria, terrorism and containing Russian aggression in Ukraine. More than most American presidents, Obama disdains what he regards as needy, showboating allies. Merkel is most definitely neither.
The chancellor grimaced at the question from the German reporter. “I am not in a position to take stock now,” she replied curtly. There was too much important work to do.
Obama, who is incapable of speaking in anything other than full — and frequently florid — paragraphs, smiled broadly and used the moment to pay Merkel a compliment.
“She has a really good sense of humor that she doesn’t show all the time at press conferences,” Obama said. “She’s a little more — she’s much more serious in front of all of you.”
An amused smile flashed across Merkel’s face, prompting a storm of clicking camera shutters from the photographers in the room.
Obama was officially in Germany for the Hannover Messe, a major trade and technology show here that is promoting American companies and products. After their news conference, he and Merkel presided over the fair’s opening ceremony, which included robots and music from the Broadway show “Wicked.” Later in the evening they dined with German and American CEOs.
The real reason Obama came to Germany was simpler and more straightforward: Merkel asked him.
These are tough times for Europe, which is struggling with terrorism, an anemic economy and an unprecedented migrant crisis. They are also tough times for the longtime German chancellor, who faces unprecedented pressure, due in part to her strong advocacy for migrants pouring into Europe at levels not seen since World War II.
“Perhaps because she once lived behind a wall herself, Angela understands the aspirations of those who’ve been denied their freedom and who seek a better life,” Obama said of Merkel, who grew up in the formerly communist east.
In an attempt to relieve some of the pressure, Merkel and Turkish leaders brokered a deal late last month that will send virtually all of the migrants who attempt to enter Europe via the Aegean Sea — including Syrians — back to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey gets $6.6 billion and the promise of jump-started talks on its E.U. membership.
The challenges facing Merkel were front and center throughout the news conference, especially when the two leaders discussed the plight of Syrian refugees and the need for a safe zone inside that country where the displaced would be protected from the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Obama voiced sympathy for Syrians caught in the middle of their country’s brutal civil war. “We all care deeply about the tragic humanitarian crisis inside of Syria. I live with this every day,” he said. But he said he opposes a safe zone administered by the United States that might lead to fewer migrants, because securing such an area would require thousands of troops and come with too many difficult questions.
“How do you do it? And who is going to put a bunch of ground troops inside of Syria?” Obama asked. “How do you let people in? And who do you let in and who do you let out? And how is it monitored?”
Merkel didn’t disagree. Instead, she said Western allies had to figure out a way through the peace negotiations with Russia, Iran and Assad’s regime to help protect Syria’s most vulnerable citizens. “We have to send a message to them,” she said of the thousands of desperate Syrians trying to flee the country for Europe.
The two leaders also talked about their mutual support for a far-reaching trade deal between the United States and Europe — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — that has drawn fierce opposition from some Germans. The day before Obama arrived, thousands of people gathered in Hanover to protest the deal. Obama expressed hope that some of the resistance to the deal in the United States might start to ease “after the primary season is over.”
“I think we all know that elections can sometimes make things a little more challenging,” he said. “People take positions, in part, to protect themselves from attacks.”
Merkel offered her endorsement of the pact in typical no-nonsense fashion: “It is important for the German economy,” she said. “It is important for the whole European economy. We ought to have an interest in speeding negotiations up.”
The reporters had more questions. Merkel pressed forward with her staccato answers.
She was asked about the prospect of working with a Republican presidential candidate — front-runner Donald Trump — who has called her welcoming refugee policies “insane.”
Merkel arched an eyebrow and cocked her head, a gesture far more revealing than her answer. Cameras clicked furiously. “First, I concentrate on the task ahead for 2016. I’m quite busy with that, thank you very much,” she replied.
A reporter wondered whether she felt some vindication for keeping Germany out of the 2011 NATO-led effort in Libya that toppled Moammar Gaddafi, a mission that Obama now acknowledges was poorly planned. “Let’s look ahead. Let’s look at what we want to achieve,” she said of the deeply tribal country. “It is not easy. Not at all.”
As the news conference ended, Obama was asked whether he has any regrets that he cannot continue in office like Merkel, who has served as chancellor since 2005 and does not face a term limit. Obama replied that a country as big and diverse as the United States needs “fresh legs” but that he is glad Merkel is sticking around. “The world benefits from her steady presence,” he said.
Picking up a thread from the Trump question, Obama closed with a forceful defense of Merkel’s wisdom and compassion, especially on the refugee issue.
“She is on the right side of history on this,” Obama said, his voice rising. “I am very proud of her for that, and I am proud of the German people for that.”
If Merkel was pleased, she didn’t show it. Instead, she flashed her poker face.