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Merkel's Visit With Biden Will Cap Off Many Ups And Downs With U.S. Presidents

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with then-President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at the start of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017.
John MacDougall
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel with then-President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at the start of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017.

The Biden administration insists that Thursday's meeting between President Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is "very much a forward-looking visit," but it'll be hard not to look back as she approaches the end of nearly two decades in power.

Biden and Merkel will touch on many of the issues that have dominated the president's one-on-one meetings with other world leaders: climate change, COVID-19, China's rising influence and Russian cyberattacks, among other topics.

But the fact is Merkel's visit to the White House amounts to a U.S. swan song for a leader who has been a steady presence on the global stage since 2005 and expects to leave office later this year.

Four men have served as U.S. president since Merkel became chancellor, and depending on the occupant of the Oval Office, Merkel has either played the role of a close confidant or something like an annoyed neighbor.

Body language spoke volumes during the Bush, Obama and Trump years

Merkel's relationships with George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump are all summed up by viral (or whatever the early 2000s version of viral was) images of her and her counterparts at global summits: Merkel grimacing as Bush gave her an unsolicited shoulder rub; Merkel and Obama engaged in an animated, relaxed one-on-one discussion before an Alpine vista; Merkel leaning over a table, confronting a scowling Trump.

The body language tracked with policies: Merkel, along with most other European Union leaders, opposed Bush's Iraq War and withdrawal from an international climate change agreement, among other policies.

She was initially skeptical of Obama's pop culture popularity but developed a close relationship with the Democrat as the two navigated the aftermath of a global recession, among many other crises. Merkel and Obama's relationship was strained by disclosures midway through his time in office that U.S. intelligence agencies were listening in on her phone calls. But by the end of Obama's tenure, Merkel called him her "partner and friend."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel chats with then-President Barack Obama after a working session of a G7 summit near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, southern Germany, on June 8, 2015.
Michael Kappeler / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Merkel chats with then-President Barack Obama after a working session of the G-7 summit near Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany in 2015.

Former Obama foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes called Merkel Obama's "closest partner" in his memoir, and he described a three-hour private dinner the two leaders held in Berlin after Trump's 2016 election.

At a press conference during that trip, Merkel expressed confidence she would be able to work with Trump, but the two clashed on many key policies, including Trump's sustained skepticism — often outright hostility — toward key U.S.-Europe partnerships, including the NATO alliance.

Early in Trump's tenure, Merkel warned that "we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands," rather than count on a steady relationship with the United States.

In this infamously tense photo provided by the German Government Press Office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel deliberates with then-President Donald Trump at the 2017 G7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada.
Jesco Denzel / German Government Press Office via Getty Images
German Government Press Office via Getty Images
In an exchange that seemed to symbolize their often tense relationship, Merkel deliberates with Trump on the sidelines of the 2017 G-7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec.

A warm farewell with Biden

Like other European heads of government, Merkel welcomed the alliance-focused Biden during last month's G-7 and NATO summits.

Merkel will begin her final visit to the White House by having breakfast with Vice President Harris at the U.S. Naval Observatory. She'll then hold a one-on-one meeting with Biden, followed by a larger session with advisers on both sides. Merkel and Biden will hold a joint press conference and end the day with a dinner along with their spouses — though not a full-blown state dinner.

The Biden administration official said during the visit Biden will likely "convey gratitude for her leadership." The official called the longtime chancellor "a true friend to the U.S., a strong advocate for the trans-Atlantic partnership."

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.