BERLIN – It was a romantic setting on the first day of the G-20 -- a man and a woman speaking closely near a beach in Los Cabos.
But the couple with their heads pressed together has a history rooted in rancor, and though it's thawed somewhat -- with their seaside conversation, touching on the eurozone crisis and Syria, a symbol of closer ties -- the relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains tepid.
"On a scale of one to 10, I would give this relationship a five or a six," says Heather A. Conley, Europe director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I don't think it's as positive as has been suggested publicly and in the media."
Obama is famously aloof from other world leaders. Merkel is among the few he has cited personally, albeit awkwardly, as someone who has "a lot of trust and confidence" in his leadership. At last year's state dinner in her honor, according to the New York Times, Obama served German apple strudel and James Taylor sang "You've Got a Friend" before the two leaders clinked glasses.
There have been no embarrassing backrub moments, but beyond surface gestures, the two leaders' relationship seems anything but warm. Four months from the polls, that could spell trouble for Obama. Support from the de facto chief executive of Europe will be crucial to a president struggling to right a sinking global economic ship and sell voters on his jobs agenda.
"The re-election is going to turn on the economy, and if Merkel could buy him time more time by holding off the euro crisis and sparing the economy, it could help him in the election," says Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund. "I think people are so pessimistic about Obama's handling of the economy [that] one more thing could send them over to Romney. And Obama absolutely shares that view."
In Mexico, said White House spokesman Jay Carney, the two leaders "agreed to work closely together… to build support for what needs to be done in Europe and the world to stabilize the situation and support growth and jobs."
The words were comforting. But Conley says they mask "a deep misunderstanding and growing frustration on both sides. Obama believes that Merkel does not fully realize what's at stake for him, and she thinks he doesn't understand what's at stake for the future of Europe and that there's more here than his re-election.