From Bush to Biden: How Angela Merkel got along with her U.S. counterparts

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BERLIN — Angela Merkel treated George W. Bush to roast boar, discovered a kindred spirit in Barack Obama and explained the basics of international law to Donald Trump.

And on Thursday, the German chancellor will arrive at the White House to try and cement a relationship with Joe Biden, her fourth — and, given her impending retirement from politics, final — U.S. president. 

Over her 16 years in office, Merkel has outlasted countless foreign counterparts, including three U.S. presidents: She led Germany through three years of Bush’s second term, all eight years of Obama’s presidency and the turbulent four years of Trump’s tenure.

With some of the past occupants of the White House, Merkel has had a cordial, constructive and even warm rapport; with others, the relationship has been downright difficult.

As she flies to Washington on Wednesday to meet Biden, here’s a look back at how she got along with the U.S. presidents who came before him.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with then U.S. President George W. Bush in 2006 | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bush: Post-Schröder warmth

When Merkel took over as chancellor in 2005, the relationship between the White House and the German chancellery was at a low point. In 2003 and 2004, Bush had famously clashed with Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, over the invasion of Iraq and Germany’s involvement (or lack thereof) in that war.

Things had gotten so bad that then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said there was a “poisoned atmosphere” between the two governments.

Merkel, then, represented the opportunity for a fresh start with Bush — one he took gladly. After the pair’s first meeting at the White House in 2006, Bush raved about his German counterpart, saying she was “really refreshing to work with” and that he was “thrilled” to collaborate with her.

“Now we have a chance to turn a new chapter in our relationship,” Bush said at the time.

Mirroring Bush’s open style, Merkel had a warm and easy rapport with her American counterpart. Bush visited Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in 2006, where the pair dined on roast wild boar and toured Merkel’s parliamentary district; she returned the favor in 2007, flying to Crawford, Texas for a visit and informal talks at the Bush family ranch.

“He’s friendly and open, and she reacted to that,” said James D. Bindenagel, who served as U.S. ambassador and special envoy for Holocaust issues under Bill Clinton and Bush, and who now teaches at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Bonn. “They had a really friendly relationship … he’s the guy that you’d want to go have a beer with, and in fact, she did.”

Perhaps the most awkward moment of their relationship came at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2006 when Bush got a bit too friendly: He came up behind Merkel and gave her a quick shoulder rub, which she reacted to with visible discomfort. The incident, which made headlines at the time, didn’t seem to hamper their relationship going forward.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with then U.S. President Barack Obama in 2016 | Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Obama: A close, blossoming partnership

In the final months of Obama’s presidency, with the White House and the world stage reeling from Trump’s election, one of the last foreign trips Obama took was to see Merkel in Berlin.

During that trip, in November 2016, Obama called Merkel an “outstanding partner” and praised her “integrity, her truthfulness, her thoughtfulness,” saying if he were a German voter, he’d certainly opt to elect her for another term.

It was the culmination of a slow but steady deepening of the relationship between Obama and Merkel: By the time he left office in 2017, the two politicians had built up a relationship full of goodwill and mutual understanding.

“There really was a personal bond that developed between Obama and Merkel,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as Obama’s European affairs expert on the National Security Council. “You could see it. You could feel it. There was a true friendship.”

They didn’t start out so close. It took years for the two leaders’ relationship to evolve into the partnership and fondness they still have today. That’s in part due to the two leaders’ different political styles: Obama came to office after a campaign filled with sweeping rhetoric and lofty speeches, while Merkel has always been understated and matter-of-fact.

(In fact, when then-candidate Obama wanted to give a campaign speech at Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate in summer 2008, Merkel said she found the plan a bit “odd”; he spoke down the road at the Victory Column in Berlin’s Tiergarten park instead.)

Things were further complicated in 2013 when the news broke that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had reportedly tapped Merkel’s mobile phone. The chancellor was incensed, expressing her displeasure to Obama directly; the incident, part of a wider scandal surrounding the scope of NSA surveillance, caused serious tensions in the U.S.-German relationship.

But the relationship evolved in the final years of Obama’s tenure. The real turning point for Obama and Merkel came in 2014, Kupchan said: After the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine, it seemed Germany and the U.S. were finally on the same page when it came to their strategy toward Russia and the two could work more constructively and closely together.

That close relationship trickled down to every level of government: In the final years of Obama’s presidency, Kupchan recalled being in contact with his German counterparts nearly every day. And although Obama and Merkel do certainly have different political styles, Kupchan said they began to discover they had more in common than they’d thought.

“They’re quite similar in many respects,” he said. “They’re both cerebral politicians; they believe in deliberative democracy. They are risk-averse; they are ideological centrists. And so there was much to bring them together.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with then U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Trump: A 180-degree shift

When Merkel visited Trump at the White House just a few months after he took office, in March 2017, the pair sat in chairs in the Oval Office for a photo-op. As the photographers asked them to shake hands, Merkel turned to Trump and asked, “Do you want to have a handshake?” Trump ignored the request, grimacing and saying to the cameras, “Thank you, thank you.”

The handshake-that-wasn’t moment felt like an apt metaphor for the two politicians’ rapport over the four years that followed: A series of miscommunications, fundamental disagreements and a lack of personal warmth.

“The 180-degree turnaround from a personality like President Obama to Donald Trump … was a challenge for everybody, including the chancellor,” said Peter Beyer, a politician from Merkel’s Christian Democrats who serves as the transatlantic coordinator for the German foreign ministry.

Trump’s comments about Merkel during the 2016 campaign hadn’t exactly set the pair up for a close relationship: Speaking of Merkel’s decision to allow more than a million refugees into Germany, Trump said she “should be ashamed of herself.” And when he found out Merkel had been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, Trump tweeted, “they picked person [sic] who is ruining Germany.”

After Trump’s election, Merkel offered him her congratulations — and a veiled message about his politics. In a statement, she listed the “common values” shared by the U.S. and Germany, including democracy, freedom and the rule of law: “It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation,” she said.

In early conversations with Trump, it seems Merkel attempted to build a constructive relationship, even reportedly explaining the Geneva Convention to him in a phone call during his first weeks in office. When she came to Washington that spring, she sought to find common ground.

“She tried a charm offensive … and she failed, if you will, in changing him, changing his character and positively influencing the way he communicated with us,” Beyer said of that first White House visit. “It was complicated, and it never got any better over time.”

The relationship wasn’t exactly helped by Trump’s envoy in Berlin, Richard Grenell, who burst onto the scene in spring 2018 with a series of brash demands. Trump also continued lambasting Merkel personally, tweeting about German crime rates and her refugee policies. That, coupled with a shift in trade policy and his rhetoric toward the European Union and NATO, wreaked damage on the U.S.-German relationship that is still being repaired today.

The shift in policy and personality from Trump to Biden, then, is part of why officials on both sides of the Atlantic see things going far more easily with the current president than the last one.

“The personal connection cannot be overstated,” said Kupchan. “And I think that’s good news from the perspective of the Biden presidency because Biden believes in personal relationships … he believes that diplomacy is about building personal relationships, and he invests time and energy in establishing rapport with key foreign partners.”

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