Obama, Merkel to talk policy before night of pomp

June 7, 2011 - 2:12 AM

US Germany Dinner

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are seen during the NATO Official group photo of the North Atlantic Council summit in Lisbon , Portugal. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

President Barack Obama plans the grandest reception for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but weighty matters of war and economic turmoil will linger in the background for her visit.

In a White House meeting Tuesday, the two leaders were expected to deal with a wide range of issues, including NATO operations in Afghanistan and Libya, the Middle East peace process and the world economy.

Later, Obama was to treat Merkel to a night of high pomp at the White House, awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a formal dinner. The gestures appear aimed at boosting a relationship that has seemed more cordial than close.

To that end, on Monday evening the two leaders met for a quiet dinner in the city's historic Georgetown neighborhood at an elegant restaurant modeled on a country inn.

Merkel comes at a time she is suffering a loss of popularity amid problems with her coalition partner and a backlash from Germans upset about their country's large contribution to a European financial bailout of Greece. Her decision this month to halt Germany's nuclear energy production by 2022, however, has given her a small boost in a country that long has had a strong anti-nuclear movement.

Merkel also is in the midst of managing the response to an E. coli outbreak linked to raw vegetables that has killed 17 in Germany and sickened more than 2,300.

Obama also is facing a politically delicate time less than a year and a half before he goes before the voters to determine whether he deserves a second four-year term. His standing has been boosted by the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. commandos, but he faces serious challenges from a still-weak economy and lingering high unemployment.

With both leaders coping with domestic vulnerability, Obama may be looking for a better understanding of how Merkel's problems at home are affecting her moves on the world stage. The two have had differences on Libya, for instance, after Germany abstained in the U.N. vote that authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and kept its troops out of the NATO-led operation to enforce it.

"Washington is grappling with where Berlin is on some of these important issues," says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think Merkel has an opportunity to place some of them in a broader strategic context."

The trip is Merkel's sixth visit the United States since Obama took office. The relationship between the two leaders got off to a rough start during Obama's 2008 campaign when she declined a request to let him speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate -- a symbol of the Cold War famously used as a backdrop by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. A year later, he turned down an invitation to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Tuesday will start with a bang for Merkel -- a 19-gun salute during a formal welcome on the White House South Lawn ahead of the meeting with Obama. Later Merkel will be honored with the most elegant evening the U.S. puts on for a foreign leader.

Though the trip will not referred to as a state visit, because she is the head of Germany's government, not its head of state, it will have almost all the trappings. The only difference is in the number of gun salutes: a head of state gets 21.

Regardless of what the visit is called, Merkel is in rarefied company. Visits like these, with the accompanying pomp and pageantry, are an honor the U.S. doles out sparingly to close friends and allies. She is the first European leader to receive this treatment from Obama. The White House said it is a sign of the close working relationship they have forged in 2 1/2 years.

Merkel, 56, is not known for being flashy, but being welcomed to the White House in such elaborate style could help improve her image at home.

Obama awarded Merkel the Medal of Freedom last year but did not have an opportunity to present it to her. At the time, Obama spoke about her youth in communist East Germany and her dreams of freedom that were not realized until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Obama said her story was an inspiration to people around the world.

While the black-tie dinner has been in the works for months, the White House was keeping a tight lid on all aspects of the evening -- from the menu and decor to first lady Michelle Obama's gown -- until a few hours before guests start arriving. In this age of raging social media, the White House also frowns on guests tweeting excitedly about the dinner beforehand, as has happened in the past.

Among the few known details: Both the dinner and reception and entertainment will be held in the Rose Garden, a first for the Obamas. Workers were laying down carpet on the lawn Monday evening in preparation. Guests also are likely to dine on fresh lettuce and other produce from Mrs. Obama's garden.

The last White House dinner for a German leader was held for Chancellor Helmut Kohl in February 1995.

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Associated Press writers Melissa Eddy and David Rising in Berlin and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.