“This will certainly be the highlight of my time in college.” Christin Schmidt takes the words right out of my mouth when we sit on the train from Göttingen to Hannover, the capital of Lower Saxony in Germany, early in the morning of April 25th. Together with 21 fellow students of North American Studies at Georg-August-University Göttingen, professor Babette Bärbel Tischleder and teaching assistants Marleen Knipping and Susann Köhler, we are following an invitation issued by the U.S. consulate to attend Barack Obama’s eagerly anticipated keynote speech during his last state visit as President.
“The invitation from the consulate in Hamburg arrived on very short notice. I had to choose a specific number of students within a day’s time”, Babette Bärbel Tischleder, professor of North American Studies at the Seminar of English Philology, recounts. “We maintain a good relationship with the consulate and back in 2012, the former U.S. consul Inmi Patterson visited us for a student talk. I guess that is why they chose to invite some of our students.” 21 of my fellow students and I were chosen from about 50 interested young scholars on a first come, first serve basis and are part of approximately 400 invited students who, amongst others, mostly come from American Studies and Political Science departments at universities in Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover. “They surely want to foster the cultural understanding between Europe and the United States”, Babette Tischleder believes. “Our students are the mediators of the future.”
We are all very much looking forward to the President’s speech, who visited on the occasion of the Hannover Messe, the largest industrial fair in the world. “To hear him speak will surely be a great experience”, says Frederick Prush. Caroline Bürmann adds that she is curious “what arguments he will come up with”. Except for its focus on foreign policy, not much of the keynote speech’s highly anticipated content was previously known. However, most of us expect him to talk about the advantages and neccessity of TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which has provoked harsh criticism and sparked major protests in Hannover during Obama’s visit.
After our arrival in Hannover and a short bus ride to the fair grounds, we are put on the rack for about two hours before we are finally able to pass the meticulous security checks and can take some of the sought-after seats in the pavillion. There, we find ourselves in the company of the international press, Secret Service personnel and German political VIPs. After catching a short glimpse of German chancellor Angela Merkel, who takes her seat in the first row next to government spokesman Steffen Seibert just behind the barrier, we are finally rewarded for our previous patience. An energetic Barack Obama enters the stage with a smile on his face and greets the attendees with a friendly “Guten Tag” before he begins his 45-minute speech.
Our assumption about a focus on TTIP is not confirmed. Instead, President Obama offers a broad summary of the imminent challenges facing us in our world today. From the bloody civil war in Syria and the connected refugee crisis Europe is struggling with to the pitfalls of climate change, he talks about measures his government has already taken or is planning to take in the remaining time until the presidential elections this coming November and the end of his period of governance early next year.
“The United States, and the entire world, needs a strong and prosperous and democratic and united Europe.” – President Barack Obama
But the essence of his address turns out to be a call for a restrengthening of the European Union, which Washington fears to be falling apart in the wake of the refugee crisis and recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Obama touches upon numerous subjects and connects them each time to the necessity of a strong European Union, which is one of the most important allies of the United States. Additionally, he commends chancellor Merkel on her refugee policy stating that she “is on the right side of history on this”.
On our way back to the train station, we surprisingly catch a glimpse of the President in “the Beast”, his presidential limousine, on the way to castle Herrenhausen, where he meets the German, French, British and Italian heads of state in the afternoon. Everyone in our group seems impressed and gives the experience a positive review. “Obama touched upon different subjects like the refugee crisis and international terrorism”, Theresa Croll explains. “I liked that the speech was not primarily about TTIP.” Laura Cavallaro adds that he came across “very down to earth and realistic” and “directly addressed us students several times”. Laura was the luckiest of us all on that day, as she got to shake the President’s hand after he finished his speech and came down to greet some of the invitees. “That was an unforgettable, exciting moment. I will still tell my grandchildren about it.”
For me, this was the third time I was fortunate enough to see and hear President Obama speak and, like the previous two times, I was deeply impressed by his demeanor, eloquence and ability to captivate the audience’s attention. Despite the fact that he was not able to implement all of his well-intentioned plans in the gusty political waters of Washington D.C., to me he represents a type of political leader you scarcely find in the often dirty business of politics. That is most certainly due to his intellect and global perspective as well as his seemingly empathetic personality, which is rooted in his familial background and the diverse experiences he made during his forming years living in Hawai’i, Indonesia, and on the American mainland in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston and Chicago. It makes me sad to know that he will leave the oval office next year, as the prospective leaderships of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton seem to be either a complete catastrophe or a political compromise – especially for a Europe battered by crisis.