Obama Kicks Off European Tour in Germany

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, on a foreign tour he hopes will boost his election chances, on Thursday gives an outdoor speech in Berlin on transatlantic ties that is likely to draw thousands.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

Obama, who arrived on Thursday morning, will give the evening speech, which the German press is comparing to former President John F. Kennedy's 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" address, at the "Victory Column" in Berlin's central Tiergarten park.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he was due to meet, opposed his campaign's initial plan to hold the speech at the Brandenburg Gate, a historic landmark she says is more appropriate for presidents rather than presidential hopefuls.

The address is the only public speech of a week-long foreign tour that is taking place against the backdrop of a fiercely fought U.S. election campaign.

"Hopefully (the speech) will be viewed as a substantive articulation of the relationship I'd like to see between the United States and Europe," Obama told reporters in Israel before leaving for Germany.

"I'm hoping to communicate across the Atlantic the value of that relationship and how we need to build on it." Relations between the United States and Germany reached a post-war low under Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But the conservative Merkel, who grew up behind the Wall in the communist East, has worked hard to repair ties and emerged as one of President George W. Bush's closest allies in Europe.

She said on the eve of Obama's visit that she expected to discuss NATO cooperation, climate change and trade issues with him during a morning meeting at the Chancellery that German officials have said will last about an hour.

They are also expected to discuss Afghanistan and Iraq, the countries where Obama started his Middle East and European tour.

In Kabul on Sunday, Obama described the situation in Afghanistan as precarious and urgent.


He and his Republican challenger for president John McCain have both said Europe must step up its efforts there, but Merkel told reporters on Wednesday that she would tell Obama there were limits to what Germany could do.

The Obama visit has dominated the newspaper headlines in Germany for weeks, even sparking sharp exchanges between Merkel and her foreign minister over whether a speech at the Brandenburg Gate was appropriate.

Merkel has said the landmark -- where President Ronald Reagan famously urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" -- is a place for presidents, not candidates to speak.

Her advisers tried to convince the Obama campaign to hold the speech at a university or other low-key location.

Asked if he had read the Cold War speeches delivered by Reagan and Kennedy in Berlin to prepare for his own trip, Obama said unlike the two presidents, he was just "a citizen".

"Obviously, Berlin is representative of the extraordinary success of the post-war efforts to bring the continent and to bring the West together," he said.

Around 700 policemen will be in place for the visit and city workers have been setting up barriers around the "Siegessaeule", a 230 foot (70 metre) high column built to celebrate 19th century Prussian military victories over Denmark, France and Austria, since Monday.

Influential weekly Der Spiegel dedicated its weekend issue to the visit, putting a picture of Obama on the cover and the title "Germany meets the Superstar".

Obama Leads McCain: Poll

Democrat Barack Obama has a 6-point lead over Republican John McCain in the U.S. presidential race as a growing percentage of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Wednesday.

Obama leads McCain by 47 percent to 41 percent for the Nov. 4 election, unchanged from last month.

But 55 percent believed Obama, a 46-year-old first-term Illinois senator, would be the riskier choice for president, while 35 percent said that of McCain, 71, a fourth-term Arizona senator, the poll said.

But Obama's message of change may resonate with a disgruntled electorate after eight years of a Republican-run White House.

Only 13 percent of those polled believed the country was headed in the right direction.