Obama and Merkel Meet the Press, Unhappily

Both leaders found tough questions and few easy answers Monday.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 09: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama (R) hold a joint news conference in the East Room after meetings about the situation in Ukraine and other topics at the White House February 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Belarus to continue talks aimed at de-escalating the war in Ukraine. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (National Journal)

There is no good German translation for "snarky." But there was no doubt a reporter from the German Press Agency was being just that at Monday's East Room press conference when he took two not-so-subtle jabs at President Obama in his question, eliciting an audible sigh from the president who immediately punted the offending question to his guest, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It was that kind of press conference for the two leaders, one more memorable for their pleas for patience and understanding than for any demonstrations of allied triumphalism or declarations of diplomatic successes. This was not a session for optimism. Nor, in the case of the German question, for kid gloves.

The query that drew the presidential sigh first went for blood with a pointed reminder of one of Obama's more embarrassing foreign policy stumbles. "What would be the red line" on Ukraine," the reporter asked, stoking bad memories of the chemical-weapons red line in Syria that wasn't really a line. Then, with more snark than schadenfreude, he reminded Obama that the world had crowned him a peacemaker only eight months into his term, sarcastically asking, "What can the Nobel laureate Obama do more to defuse this conflict?"

After sighing, the president looked to Merkel for an assist: "Do you want to go first on this?"

She said she would do so "gladly." But the fact is, she didn't seem to be enjoying herself any more than Obama was at a press conference that focused over and over again on diplomatic setbacks and allied impotence in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine and Iranian nuclear developments.

Both leaders lobbied for more time for their diplomatic efforts. "What's the rush?" asked Obama about the Iran talks. "Unless your view is that it's not possible to get a deal with Iran and it shouldn't even be tested? And that I cannot agree with."

Merkel stood with the president on Iran in the face of bipartisan pressure in Congress to impose harsher sanctions on Tehran. She cast negotiations as the only logical course for any politician. "It is incumbent upon us as politicians—we owe it to the people to explore every avenue until somebody gives in," she said. She acknowledged that "all of the options are on the table." And she said, "We are expected to try, time and again."

But Merkel was decidedly pessimistic about both the talks with Russia and the talks with Iran. On Ukraine, she said the diplomacy will continue, but she acknowledged, "we have suffered a lot of setbacks." Looking at upcoming negotiations, she added, "We have no guarantee.... And maybe nothing will come out of it. But then we're called upon again to think about a new possibility.... We never have a guarantee that the policies we adopt will work."

She said she continues to press for more diplomacy because she "would not be able to live with not having made this attempt." But the chancellor quickly added, "So there is anything but an assured success in all of this."

Obama doubled down on her gloomy assessment. "The point Angela made, I think, is right, which is we never have guarantees that any particular course of action works." But he insisted the policies still are working, contending that "just because we have not yet gotten the outcome we want doesn't mean that this pressure is not over time making a difference."

Asked about American surveillance of allied leaders like Merkel, Obama seemed a bit exasperated, stressing 70 years of U.S.-German partnership and, with a touch of pathos, adding, "Occasionally, I would like the German people to give us the benefit of the doubt, given our history, as opposed to assuming the worst."

For both leaders, the press conference became an exercise in hope that things may work out and pessimism that they will—flavored with a nostalgic recollection of easier times. For Obama, it was that reminder of when the world named him a Nobel laureate and a bygone day when Germans trusted America to do the right thing. For Merkel, it was the heady time of the Berlin Wall falling and German reunifying.

"We thought in the '90s maybe that things would turn out somewhat more easily, somewhat less complicated," she said wistfully. "Now we see ourselves confronted with a whole wealth of conflicts, and very complex ones at that."

Both leaders have discovered there are few easy answers.