How does one prepare to speak to a million screaming Germans?
I asked Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, this question as he boarded O Force One and came back to the reporters’ veal pen before the plane took off from Tel Aviv, Israel to Berlin, Germany.
This evening Obama will give a speech at the Victory Column at Tiergaten Park.
"I doubt we’re gonna have a million screaming Germans," Obama said.
Half a million? asked another reporter.
"Let’s tamp down expectations here," Obama said. "If we get a few tens of thousands…"
Obama said he "did not realize – my staff basically just told me that this space is bigger than I realized. So."
Asked a reporter: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
"Uh, it’s a potentially bad thing if nobody shows up," Obama said, laughing. "You know, we’re sort of on the high wire all of the sudden. It’s like, ‘I’m sorry, how many people does this accommodate? How many?’…We really have no idea what’s going to happen. Sort of a crapshoot. I’m happy with the speech though."
A reporter noted that the campaign has been distributing fliers to Berliners to drum up attendance.
"Why don’t you guys go out and distribute some fliers?" Obama asked. "Is that a conflict for you guys?"
Joked a cable news correspondent: "We have been. It’s called television."
Obama said tonight’s address will not be "a wonkish policy speech…We started working on it about two weeks ago, about two weeks ago." The speech "was in pretty good shape a couple days ago and now we’re just kind of tooling around with it."
Obama’s aides have been insisting this won’t be a political rally and is not a political speech, though his campaiggn is paying for the trip (excluding the Iraq and Afghanistan legs) and events are clearly being staged with the intention of making voters back in the US comfortable with the notion of Obama as a commander-in-chief, an area where he needs shoring up.
And yet Obama and his team are also sensitive to being seen as presumptuous, of acting like a president before the people have their say this November.
Did he look to the Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy speeches about Berlin for guidance when writing his own? he was asked.
"You know, they were presidents," Obama said, " I am a citizen. But obviously Berlin is representative of the extraodinary success of the post World War II effort to bring the continent together and the West together and then later to bring the East and the West together so, so I think it’s a natural place to talk about it."
Does he see the speech as a way to describe how he could improve that relationship as president?
"No," Obama said. "I’m just giving a speech."
In English, he noted.
"My German is not real good," he said. "I can speak Bahasi Indonesian but I don’t think…there would be a lot of appeal to that."
Would you describe this as a campaign speech tonight? another reporter asked.
"As opposed to?" Obama replied.
You’re in a campaign and you’re giving a speech, replied the reporter. Would it be okay to describe it as a campaign speech?
"The people in the crowd aren’t voters," Obama said, "so in that sense its not designed to get them to the polls. You know, its not a political rally. Hopefully it will be viewed as a substantive articulation of the relationship I’d like to see beteen the US and Europe."
Audiences back in the US will be watching as well, though, right? he was asked.
"I’m hoping to communicate across the Atlantic about the relationship and how we can build on it," he said.
He added that "there’s no doubt that part of what I want to communicate on both sides of the Atlantic is the enormous potential of us for restoring a strong sense of coming together."
Obama said he was not surprised by the international reaction to his world tour.
"What I think I anticipated was that the world is keely interested in this election," he said. "And I think they are hungry for a sense of where America is going so certainly there is a curiosity there as well."
Obama noted that in a break from his whirlwind schedule, "we’ve got some down time tonight. What are you guys gonna do in Berlin? Huh? Huh? You guys got any big. plans? …I’ve never been to Berlin, so…I would love to tour around a little bit."