Obama wants to become another Kennedy in Berlin

U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama kicked off the European leg of his overseas trip in Berlin on Thursday, meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel hours before he will give a major speech on U.S.-European relations.

Obama, shortly after arriving at Tegel Airport, was ferried in a motorcade to a private meeting with Merkel at the chancellery, which sits across from the glass-domed Reichstag parliament building.

Berlin is the first stop on a European leg that will also take Obama to France and Britain - part of an effort to burnish his foreign policy credentials as he campaigns against Republican John McCain for the U.S. presidency.

Obama arrived in the German capital following visits to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Jordan.

He will cap his day with an open-air speech before an expected crowd of thousands that his campaign has described as a "substantive address on U.S.-European relations."

Merkel has told reporters that she planned to talk about climate change and global free trade with Obama, and also made clear that Germany will stand by its refusal to send combat troops to southern Afghanistan.

Around 700 police officers have been deployed during Obama's visit, which lasts through Friday morning.

Obama paused inside the gates of the chancellery to wave at a group of Bavarian 11th-graders whose class happened to be ending its tour of the building as he was arriving.

"We were really close," an excited Michaela Schmid said. "It was super, a real highlight."

Inside, Obama and Merkel shook hands and exchanged small talk just outside her office before heading behind closed doors for their private meeting. About an hour later, Obama left the chancellery.

The chancellery is an imposing sandstone-and-concrete cube. The 205,000-square-foot (19,000-square-meter) building, inaugurated in 2001, faces the restored Reichstag in the heart of Berlin's new government quarter.

The building dwarfs the White House and has more than three times the area of the French president's Elysee Palace in Paris.

Obama will meet with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Foreign Ministry later Thursday.

But Berliners are looking to Obama's speech in front of the Tiergarten's 225-foot (70-meter meter) high Victory Column. The appearance has symbolic value because several U.S. presidents - including John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton - made significant addresses in Berlin.

Former German President Richard von Weizsaecker said that the Obama event could help pave the way for a new trans-Atlantic relationship, according to a newspaper report.

"Kennedy said the famous sentence: 'Ich bin ein Berliner' - Obama could send the Berlin signal: America is counting on Europe for its future," he was quoted as saying by the Bild newspaper Thursday.

"We have long believed that nobody in America is interested in our continent any more," he said in further quotes attributed to him. "The appearance and the speech of Barack Obama are evidence that this preconception is false."

Vernon Thomas, an 18-year-old American tourist from Omaha, Nebraska, who waited outside the chancellery, said he was astounded by the support that he has seen in Germany for the Democrat.

"I think it's amazing. There are more people to see him here in Berlin than in my hometown," said Thomas, who said he has seen Obama speak twice in Omaha. "For someone to get that much support in a foreign country, it's spectacular."