BERLIN—Four months out of office, Barack Obama was in full elder statesman mode when he appeared in Berlin on Thursday morning, looking sharp and well-rested as he told a cheering audience: "First of all: Guten Tag."
One sign waved back, echoing a famous line from John F. Kennedy: "Du bist ein Berliner."
An adoring crowd of some 80,000 people, many of whom started queuing up at 7:00 a.m. to get a place in front of the Brandenburg Gate, now stretched miles back.
The world is becoming more interconnected, Obama said, well aware of the historical context here. Providing development aid or investing to fight climate change isn’t just charity: "In this new world that we live in we cannot isolate ourselves, we can’t hide behind a wall."
Many in the crowd wore orange sashes to mark the biannual Evangelical "Kirchentag" and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The 44th president of the United States had some wise words to share about the value of skeptical thinking.
The deep religiousness of many Americans is positive, but can be misleading, he suggested. "The problem is that we sometimes carry into politics our unwillingness to compromise in questions of faith," even though compromises in a democracy are "inevitable."
"Each of us only sees a part of the truth," said Obama. The real strength of faith, according to him, is to allow for other opinions: "I think it is always a good thing to doubt yourself a bit."
"I liked that part the most," Natasha, a young woman from Chicago, told The Daily Beast afterward. "And when he talked about how a presidency is a 'human enterprise,' and inevitably flawed—it also reminded me that, you know, Trump is just a person. He makes mistakes."
Her friend interjects: "But he’s not my president! Obama is my president!“
In fact, Donald Trump’s name was not mentioned a single time in the one hour that Obama and Angela Merkel under the banner of "Engagiert Demokratie schaffen" (Being engaged in shaping a democracy) discussed, among other things, Germany’s toughening stance towards taking in refugees.
But for the young crowd, even with a sunny public holiday and Obama on the stage, the new American president was still on people’s minds.
A 13-year-old boy scout with one yellow sash tied around his neck and another tied around his head told us he thinks Obama’s appearance was "ein starkes gegensignal," a strong contrast to President Trump, whom the young man described as a "populist autocrat."
This is the second time that "Kirchentag" is taking place in Berlin since 1989, when it was held on the divided ground of the East and the West.
At the time, Monica, a middle-aged accountant, got special permission to travel from East Berlin to West Berlin for the public festivities. She says this is her first time back at the "Kirchentag" since then.
"It’s amazing to see the difference," she tells The Daily Beast.
Then she adds acerbically, "And it’s good to see someone like that, who, umm, thinks ... about the world. Being the president of the United States is hard. I think we were pretty spoiled for the past eight years.“
There was some outcry among Merkel’s opponents that Obama was flown in to help her campaign. German elections are in September. And indeed, while Obama may have gotten the rock star welcome in Berlin, it was Angela Merkel who ended up getting the biggest laugh.
As the chairman shifted to address Obama, he said: “Now that the long-time most-powerful man in the world is sitting next to me.” Obama appeared to wince. In fact, Merkel was seated between the chairman and Obama. But she began to grin.
The chairman looked confused.
“I’m just giving that look because I’m sitting next to you first.“
Obama grinned, too.
Maybe you had to be there, but the fact is 80,000 people who were thought the moment was hilarious.