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Claudia Clark, "Dear Barack: The Extraordinary Partnership of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel" (New York: Disruption Books, 2021), 301 pp. Claudia Clark, "Lieber Barack: Die außergewöhnliche Partnerschaft zwischen Angela Merkel und Barack Obama" (München: Novum, 2021), 340 pp.:

Claudia Clark, Dear Barack: The Extraordinary Partnership of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel (New York: Disruption Books, 2021), 301 pp. Claudia Clark, Lieber Barack: Die außergewöhnliche Partnerschaft zwischen Angela Merkel und Barack Obama (München: Novum, 2021), 340 pp.

This book, about the “extraordinary partnership” of U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, examines the relationship between the two important political leaders from their first phone call in January 2009 to the end of the Obama presidency in 2017. The author is an American social activist, who moved with her husband to Germany in 2017, and her goal is to show how a special bond between Merkel and Obama evolved, “transforming them from world leaders skeptical of one another to good friends and close confidants” (5). After a brief introduction and a survey of both protagonists’ upbringing and early political careers, the book examines how the first African American U.S. president and the first female, East-German-born chancellor related to each other from their first meeting to the end of the Obama presidency. Their early encounters were polite but not overly cordial since Merkel was by far “less mesmerized by Obama than her fellow citizens,” and her refusal to let Obama speak at the Brandenburg Gate when he was visiting Germany during his campaign for the presidency in 2008 had created a certain tension between them (2). Moreover, they disagreed on several political issues—especially regarding economic matters. Thus, a close friendship between the young, charismatic, liberal Obama and the rather stoic, middle-aged, conservative Merkel seemed rather unlikely in early 2009. Nevertheless, as Clark’s analysis of every meeting of the two leaders and dozens of their speeches convincingly shows, Merkel and Obama soon overcame their initial reservations and developed a strong, positive bond, based on mutual respect, trust, and even admiration.

The book’s thirteen chronological chapters examine highlights of their relationship, such as their joint visit of the Buchenwald concentration camp in 2009, Obama awarding Merkel the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2011), or Merkel’s invitation for Obama to speak at the Brandenburg Gate (2013), but also disagreements and tensions between the two leaders, e. g., regarding the Greek financial crisis, the Guantánamo question and, above all, the NSA spying scandal which came to light in 2013. Despite some setbacks—especially after Merkel found out that the NSA had tapped her personal phone—Clark argues that the two leaders were always able to work out their differences and developed a personal friendship, which went well beyond the usual relationships of political leaders. One reason for their special understanding of each other might have been that they both had come to power from positions of classic political outsiders: his being the first African American president of the United States, she the first female and East-German-born chancellor of the FRG. “Angela and I don’t exactly look like previous German and American leaders” became one of Obama’s and Merkel’s favorite remarks (119). The book also notes that despite Obama’s charismatic public persona, he tended to be relatively quiet, at times even “extremely introverted” in private, and that he, therefore, had an easier time connecting with the calm, pragmatic, and rather reserved Merkel than with some of the other European leaders, e. g., the rather flamboyant French President Nicolas Sarkozy (5-6). According to his close political advisor Ben Rhodes, there was no other foreign leader whom Obama admired more than Merkel, who became “the president’s closest partner over the course of his entire Presidency” (208). Obama soon called Merkel by her first name and repeatedly stressed his admiration, trust, and fondness for her. More remarkably, the chancellor eventually also began to refer to him as “Dear Barack,” addressing him with the German informal pronoun “Du” instead of the formal “Sie,” which is highly unusual for a conservative German politician (88-89, 111, 172). As the author points out, when Merkel found out that the NSA had even tapped her personal cell phone in 2013, she was so upset that she did not call Obama “Du” or “Dear Barack” for almost two years (172).

Clark’s book traces the relationship between Obama and Merkel in meticulous detail, citing extensive quotations by the protagonists as well as journalists, and contextualizing their various encounters in the given political landscape. The author also includes a number of little-known anecdotes, such as one of a three-hour private dinner and talk that Merkel and Obama shared at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin during his final visit to Germany in November 2016. Her line of argument is convincing, even though the text sometimes seems to slightly exaggerate the closeness of the two leaders, e. g., when interpreting their greeting with a kiss on the cheek as a sign of “the intimacy of [their] bond” (187), when stating that Obama listened to Merkel “with admiration—and perhaps a little bit of awe” (149) or noting that during a meeting in Bavaria Merkel behaved like “a giddy schoolgirl” around Obama (172). Occasionally, the speech interpretations and choice of vocabulary appear a bit repetitive, e. g., the author often comments that certain gestures of the protagonists “speak volumes” (89, 100, 111, 253) regarding their “special friendship / bond,” “level of intimacy,” or “personal chemistry” (3, 4, 92, 93, 103, 161), and Merkel’s husband Joachim Sauer, who liked to stay out of the public limelight, is repeatedly called “Germany’s Phantom of the Opera” (118, 172). Moreover, Clark’s research, which primarily relies on Anglo-American newspapers, magazines, and online sources, may have benefitted from including a few German publications as well. Nevertheless, while perhaps at times overly fawning in the portrayal of the extraordinary relationship between its two protagonists, the book certainly makes a valuable contribution to the study of Merkel’s and Obama’s biographies, international diplomacy as well as German-American political relations.

Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson (Universität Augsburg)

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