White House Preps for Merkel's Visit

WASHINGTON -- Angela Merkel has traveled to the U.S. many times since becoming Germany's chancellor six years ago, arriving quietly for meetings with the president or international summits. But she's in for a different kind of welcome Tuesday when she begins an official visit to Washington.

The day literally will start off with a bang -- a 19-gun salute during a formal welcome on the White House South Lawn. It will end with the most elegant evening the U.S. puts on for a foreign leader, especially one President Barack Obama says is a "trusted global partner."

Merkel's visit is an "official" one because she's the head of Germany's government, not its head of state -- in which case it would be a "state" visit. But both occasions are alike in style and substance. The only difference is in the number of gun salutes: a head of state gets 21.

Regardless of what the visit is called, Merkel is in rarified 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's the first European leader to receive this treatment from Obama. The White House said it's a sign of the close working relationship they've forged in two and a half years.

Obama so far has extended similar courtesies only to leaders of India, Mexico and China.

Heather Conley, a European scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Tuesday's welcome underscores Germany's growing and important role in world affairs, from the global economy and Europe's debt crisis, to the Mideast peace process and the war in Afghanistan. Germany has supported the U.S. by sending thousands of troops to Afghanistan, but parted company with Obama by shunning involvement in the international campaign of military air strikes over Libya.

"They're a key player, and I think this is an important gesture," she said.

Merkel's visit is a bit ill-timed, coming in the midst a deadly E. coli outbreak in Europe that apparently was caused by vegetable sprouts grown on an organic farm in Germany. Twenty-two people have died, and more than 2,200 have fallen ill.

Obama and Merkel got off to a rocky start when she refused, during Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, to let him speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, a Cold War symbol famously used as a backdrop by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. He returned the snub a year later by turning down Merkel's invitation to help mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Although Obama has been to Germany twice while in office, he's never made a formal visit to Berlin. He skipped Germany on his four-country European tour last month and local media suggested Merkel took that as a snub. Her aides insist that was not the case.

Merkel, 56, isn't known for being flashy, but being welcomed to the White House in such elaborate style could help improve her image at home. Her popularity has dipped due to political infighting and her support for bailing out Greece financially.

First elected in 2005, Merkel is the first woman and first East German to become chancellor of a unified Germany.

During the visit, Obama also will give Merkel the Presidential Medal of Freedom he awarded her last year but didn't have an opportunity to present to her. At the time, Obama spoke about her youth in communist East Germany and her dreams of freedom that weren't realized until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Obama said her story was an inspiration to people around the world.