Recently I had the opportunity to interview author Claudia Clark about her new book Dear Barak: The Extraordinary Partnership of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Her book explores the political relationship between former US President Barak Obama and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As Clark explained to me, the secondary theme of the book is the importance of trusting and reliable relationships between world leaders in today’s globalized environment. Below is my Q&A with the author.
Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. Rest assured that it is an authentic interview that I conducted with Claudia Clark.
What inspired you to write the book?
While the decision to write Dear Barack was a long time in the making, the final press conference between Obama and Merkel in November 2016 started the process. I was immediately struck by how visibly upset Merkel was when questioned by a journalist about this being their last such event together in an official capacity.
In both the days leading up to that final event and the days that followed it, I could not help but notice stories in the media regarding the strong bond between the two leaders. Journalists often noted Merkel’s use of the affectionate phrase “dear Barack,” and Business Insider ran a story titled “16 photos that demonstrate Obama and Merkel will truly miss one another,” which illustrated to me that others had also witnessed the chemistry between them.
I kept these images in the back of my mind but did not dredge them up again until March 2017, during Merkel’s first trip to Washington, DC, to visit President Donald Trump. I watched as Trump refused to shake Merkel’s hand, and noted the stark contrast compared to her interactions with his predecessor.
It was then that I realized Obama and Merkel had a truly memorable relationship — one that deserved special recognition, one that should be memorialized in some way. Less than a year later, from the other side of the Atlantic, and only six months after our move, I turned over a 250-page manuscript for review by the first of two editors and a translator, beginning a process about which I knew nothing — how to get a book published.
Tell me a bit about the research you did for this project
I used autobiographies, biographies, and documentaries about Obama and Merkel for most of my preliminary and background research, for example in the biography chapter. However, the bulk of my research came from primary resources such as press conferences, White House Archives, and newspaper articles to fill in gaps. It was important to me to get the entire picture, so I used sources from both sides of the Atlantic and right-leaning papers as well as left-leaning papers.
For example, when Obama visited Germany, I used sources from U.S. papers such as the New York Times, LA Times, and the Washington Post as well as German and European newspapers and magazines including Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and even the Irish Times. Luckily, all of the sources I needed for this book were public domain, so I found everything I needed. The book has over 100 pages of references, I have 6 binders full of research materials, and only a handful of books which I had to purchase.
With that said, I am an unknown author who chose to write a book about two of the most powerful people in the world. All my research is based solely on information available to the public—I just happened to be the only person who cared enough to take the time to put it all together in a comprehensive source.
It is my hope that this edition gives me enough credibility that people familiar with the Obama and Merkel administrations would be willing to offer me interviews to provide additional insights and behind-the-scenes tidbits that I could later add to a second edition.
What surprised you the most during your research for the book?
Merkel keeps her personal life very private, and the German culture has much more tolerance for that than American culture. Merkel’s husband (Professor Joachim Sauer) is a former chemistry professor who hated the political limelight.
So much in fact that the German tabloids affectionately referred to him as “the phantom of opera” because the only time he made public appearances was at the Bayreuth Opera Festival. While I had heard of this reference prior to my research, the one interesting fact I learned from my writing is that Merkel’s husband was so private he did not attend the historic moment when the German Bundestag swore Angela Merkel in as Germany’s first woman chancellor on October 28, 2009.
What did you learn about communication from Obama and Merkel’s political relationship?
The two former heads of state came from different political parties, and they had different strengths and weaknesses. Obama was a charismatic speaker—leader of the country’s center-left Democratic Party, and Merkel was the strait-laced behind-the-scenes negotiator of her country’s center-right, Christian Democratic Union party.
Thankfully, because both were notoriously pragmatic, they knew as leaders of allied nations they would at least have to learn to work together. In the process of learning to work with one another on a professional level, they grew to like and respect each other as individuals. Merkel cried when she said goodbye to Obama for the final time, and the very last phone call Obama made before he left office was to Chancellor Merkel.
Despite this “coziness” in their relationship, their relationship was by no means linear — they had their shares of ups and downs, and the one takeaway from that is despite the controversies, their relationship always managed to become stronger after the scandals. There are many reasons for this, but the profound respect they had for one another and their countries, as well as how they communicated with one another played a vital role in their success.
They were always upfront and honest with one another and what they were thinking. For example, in 2015, Obama faced tremendous pressure from Senate Republicans to engage militarily against Russian over Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea. While the U.S. was inching closer to becoming involved militarily, Germany and France remained adamantly opposed to such action.
Merkel publicly told the world in a joint press conference in February 2015 between her and Obama that she understood differences of opinions were normal and even expected. There were no hard feelings over those differences because she and Obama had such an open communication between them that Obama would honestly tell her if and when the U.S. would act.
In the end, the U.S. followed Europe’s lead and stayed out of military involvement. But the fact that the two leaders could have open and honest discussions and disagreements about such crucial policy issues speaks to the level of trust and commitment between the two parties.
Who inspires you, and why?
I am inspired by people who challenge the status quo and accomplish and earn their place in the history books for achieving unimaginable success despite the odds. Historical people include Marie Curie, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Harvey Milk, and Cesar Chavez.
Present-day people whom I admire for much of the same traits include Serena Williams, Barack Obama, Jacinda Ardern, Pete Buttigieg, Stacey Abrams, and Greta Thunberg, and Madonna.
And with both my horrible sense of direction and my inability to read a map– My absolute heroine of all time is Gladys West, the African American mathematician who invited the GPS.
Tell me a bit about how Angela Merkel’s achievements inspire
Prior to entering politics, Merkel earned a PhD in quantum chemistry in 1986 from the Academy of Sciences in Berlin–Adlershof in East Germany. After she finished her degree, she had a successful career as a published researcher and scientist at a think tank organization in Berlin.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, 35-year-old Merkel entered politics, where she quickly rose the political ranks of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union Party (CDP). In 1990 she was elected for the first time to the German Bundestag (German Parliament).
In 1991 German Chancellor Helmut Kohl appointed her to his cabinet as Minister for Women and Youth. And then in 1994, she was made Minister for the Environment and Reactor Safety, where she received greater worldwide political visibility.
In 2005, Merkel was sworn in as Germany’s first woman chancellor. However, Merkel’s historic victory was notable not only because she was the first woman chancellor, but she was the first divorcee, the first chancellor from former East Germany, and the youngest at 51, as well.
When she stepped down in Sept 2021, she missed serving as the longest serving chancellor only to Kohl by ten days. However, if one counts the time between the German election in September and when the new chancellor was sworn in, and Merkel acted as interim Chancellor, she was Germany’s longest-serving chancellor.
As well as serving as German chancellor, Merkel accomplished other professional achievements. In 2007 she became the second woman (after Margaret Thatcher) to chair the G8, and in 2008 former French President Nicolas Sarkozy presented her with the Charlemagne Prize “for her work to reform the European Union.”
In addition to her political work, she has received 17 honorary PHDs with Harvard, and Johns Hopkins included among that list. She was awarded Time Magazine’s Person of the Year Award in 2015 and most recently, UNESCO Peace Prize Recipient 2022, and Forbes Magazine has classified her as the “most powerful woman in the world at the present time.”
Despite her accomplishments, she will most likely be remembered for her calm temperament and her willingness to open German borders to over a million Syrian Refugees in 2015, and her scientific and diplomatic handling of the Covid crisis in Germany.
More from author Claudia Clark
I wrote this book because of concern I felt with regard to the isolation among others with differing political ideologies across the globe. As a lifelong political activist, I understand there is a fine line between compromise and selling out, but I felt we have gone to the other extreme, and nothing is getting accomplished because people do not want to be seen as “traitors” or weak because they cross party lines.
As a result, people are more divided than they have been in a long time, and citizens have lost in the democratic process, and thereby opting not to participate. The takeaway from the relationship between Obama and Merkel is that people do not have to agree on everything to form partnerships–even friendships and sometimes putting one’s ego or personal opinion aside for the greater good is still possible.
While this book is about two political figures and their friendship with one another, it is not a political book per say. Public Policy and politics naturally are discussed in the book, but only with respect to the impact they had on the partnership between Obama and Merkel. One does not have to agree with all (or any) of either of Obama and Merkel ‘s policies in order to get something valuable out of the book.
To find out more about the author and this fascinating book, check out Claudia Clark’s website.
Top photo courtesy of Claudia Clark.