She would later earn the nickname Flinten-Uschi – Shotgun Uschi – a derogatory term for assertive, self-confident woman.
After Mrs Merkel made her families minister, she pursued policies on child care and paid parental leave that were unpopular with her party.
Later, as Germany’s first defence ministry, she was unpopular. She failed to get the army the funding and equipment it desperately needed, instead launching army nurseries and flexible working hours for soldiers.
Now the odds were stacked against Mrs von der Leyen again.
The European Parliament, more fragmented than at any other time in its history, had threatened to block anyone who had not run as a candidate for the post in the European elections. Mrs von der Leyen’s last-minute candidacy was seen as a backroom stitch-up by EU leaders.
She could not rely on the traditional “Grand Coalition” of the centre-Right and centre-Left to rubber-stamp her appointment, who could no longer form a majority in the parliament.
It was her first big test in the capital of the EU but while Brussels did not know her, she knew it.
Her father was a senior European Commission official and she attended the same European school as Boris Johnson, although not at the same time.
“I was born in Brussels as a European, finding out only later that I am German with roots in Lower Saxony,” she told MEPs in an impassioned speech in which she switched between English, French and German.
She made an unabashed bid for the votes of the Greens and Socialists with a set of policy proposals that risked alienating her centre-Right European People’s Party, including a promise to make the EU the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.
She promised gender equality among her commissioners and called for an EU-wide minimum wage.
In an olive branch to her political family, she vowed Europe would strengthen its borders against illegal migration.
The calculation paid off. She was elected with a majority of just nine votes.
Since then Mrs von der Leyen, a member of an aristrocratic family, was criticised after praising Greece, embroiled in violent border clashes with refugees, as Europe’s “shield”.
Her reputation for an overfondness for public relations, has followed her from Germany, where she was once scooped out of a wheelie bin on a TV chat show by movie star Hugh Jackman.
Some call her Ursula “Vlog” der Leyen, thanks to her overactive social media profile. She also ruffled feathers by insisting on living inside the Commission headquarters in a purpose-made flat.
But she has also navigated tough negotiations with EU leaders and MEPs over the EU’s trillion euro Budget and a 750 billion coronavirus recovery fund.
That is blocked by Poland and Hungary but they are expected to drop their veto in the coming days.
The Anglophile, who loves British punk music, studied at the London School of Economics under an assumed name to protect her from the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group who were targeting her father, who later became a politician.
She has a horror of Brexit, which she called a “burst bubble of hollow promises”, but also of no deal.
Diplomatic sources have accused her of leaning on Michel Barnier to go soft on Britain to avoid a disorderly Brexit.
The keen equestrian remains an unknown quantity in the kind of high-level negotiations that her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, a resolutely old school politician, excelled at.
Will she be tempted to once more go her own way and against the grain, despite the risk of EU leaders rejecting the finalised Brexit trade deal? Or will her staunch belief in the European project, make her inflexible when it comes to the crunch?
What is clear is that Mr Johnson should not underestimate the steel lurking beneath her immaculately turned-out exterior.