WASHINGTON — Opening a day focused on both policy and pomp, President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the relationship between their nations as the cornerstone of efforts to promote peace and prosperity around the world.
Dozens of schoolchildren waved U.S. and German flags on the South Lawn as Obama welcomed Merkel to the White House on a warm and muggy Tuesday morning in Washington. Following the grand arrival ceremony, the two leaders met privately to discuss weighty global issues, including NATO operations in Afghanistan and Libya, the Middle East peace process and the world economy.
Obama said Merkel's visit reaffirmed the "indispensable" bond between the U.S. and Germany, as well as America's broader relationship with longtime allies in Europe.
"At a time when some have asked whether the rise of new global powers means the decline of others, this visit reaffirms an enduring truth — our alliances with nations like Germany are more important than ever," Obama said.
Merkel noted that Obama, as a candidate for the White House, spoke to more than 200,000 people in Berlin and proclaimed that America has no better partner than Europe. "Now it's my turn," Merkel said. "Europe and Germany have no better partner than America."
Merkel's visit is her sixth trip to the United States since Obama took office. Later Tuesday, 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, a gesture aimed at boosting a relationship between the two leaders that is cordial but not 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 when 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 relationship between the two leaders got off to a rough start during Obama's 2008 campaign when Merkel 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 John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. A year later, Obama turned down an invitation to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Though Merkel's trip will not be 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 was that Merkel received a 19-gun salute during the White House arrival ceremony, while 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.
• Associated Press writers Melissa Eddy and David Rising in Berlin and Darlene Superville and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.