Obama's Berlin Challenge

Berlin has long been a testing ground for American statesmen. In 1963 John F. Kennedy faced the challenge of how to address the recently erected Berlin wall, and the people whom it encircled. Twenty-four years later, Ronald Reagan knew he had to adopt a tough public stance against the Soviets while quietly negotiating with them. Both passed their tests, delivering speeches that would forever associate them with Berlin. More important, the speeches prepared the ground for their later actions. What they said mattered; what they did mattered more.

When Barack Obama arrived in Berlin last week, he stepped into their shadows. Kennedy was the obvious and easy comparison, but Obama is also clearly conscious of the parallels to Reagan. As the press and hundreds of thousands gathered to watch the Democrat speak on Thursday, his words reverberated down the long avenue toward the Brandenburg Gate, where Reagan, too, promised to change the world, back in the summer of 1987.

More than a hundred thousand people came out to hear Kennedy. The occasion was tense—only two years before, the Soviets had erected the wall in little more than a day. The Berliners' situation seemed tenuous, fragile. Kennedy's speech reassured them. When he spoke those famous lines in his flat Boston accent—"Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner"—the roar was so tremendous that even the unflappable Kennedy seemed overwhelmed. "I—uh, I—I appreciate—I appreciate my interpreter translating my German," he said, and the crowd roared again.

Reagan spoke to a much smaller audience. Only about 20,000 gathered to watch him—4,000 fewer than had marched in protest against the U.S. president's visit the night before, smashing up windows and cars. Opposed by leftists in Berlin, only hundreds of meters from a hostile foe, Reagan was unbending: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate," he said. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Even some of Reagan's aides were embarrassed by the "tear down this wall" line, thinking it was too provocative or grandiose. But Reagan understood stagecraft, and the fall of the wall two and a half years later made his words prescient. That is the stage that Reagan sought—history, not necessarily the next day's paper.

That's also the image Obama is trying to project—a leader who understands history's trajectory. He did not come to Berlin as a president, but to seem presidential—not to make policy, but to signal that, if elected, he would have the trust of the Europeans in order to do so. He came to convince a larger, global audience that he is, in fact, a transformative figure—Reaganesque, as it were.

But the question of whether Obama's candidacy is about more than stagecraft is still open. Kennedy and Reagan earned their reputations not through any one speech, however powerful, but through enduring the fires of office. Certainly Obama had to overcome tall hurdles simply to get to that stage in Berlin. But the biggest threat he faced was anti-Americanism, not the Soviets, and he has credibility here in part because he is not President George W. Bush.

When Obama spoke, he had no wall to point to, or enemy to call by name. Today the challenges America faces are more amorphous and decentralized than those that confronted Kennedy and Reagan. Even so, the Berlin tests those presidents faced were hardly imagined when they ran for office. Whether Obama measures up to his predecessors as a president will depend not only on whether he can imagine change but how he responds to it.