President Obama and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi speak from the White House
WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama has chosen to bestow his final state dinner upon a young, progressive leader who he hopes can help secure his agenda in Europe long after leaving the Oval Office.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will be feted at the White House Tuesday with the highest form of Washington flattery reserved for the most important US relationships.
“Today is bittersweet for Michelle and I because this marks the final official visit and state dinner of my presidency. But it’s okay. We’ve saved the best for last,” Obama said during a pomp-filled welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn Tuesday.
“I’m especially grateful for my partnership with Matteo. Look at him. He’s young, handsome, he’s put forth a vision of progress that’s not rooted in people’s fears, but rather in their hopes. He knows that in nations, as in individuals, we have the power to achieve great change,” Obama said.
The visit comes as Obama’s closest European allies have either been ousted from office, face uncertain futures or are nearing the end of their tenures. In rolling out the red carpet for Renzi, Obama hopes to buttress — through a lavish display of friendship — one of Europe’s most outspoken pro-US voices, one he hopes can provide a bulwark against isolationism on the continent in the months and years ahead.
“The president does see in Renzi an up-and-coming politician that’s likely to be around for a while and who shares his progressive agenda, who shares a similar outlook on lots of different issues. In that respect, he’s bringing him to a very important event in part to give him visibility and give him a boost,” said Charles Kupchan, Obama’s senior director for European Affairs, who called Renzi, 41, one of “the most promising young politicians in Europe.”
Like his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau, Renzi represents the type of left-leaning politician Obama hopes will continue his liberal legacy on the global stage once he leaves office. Once accused of failing to develop close ties with foreign leaders, Obama has worked during his final year in office to foster more personal bonds with the leaders he’s leaving behind in January.
The effort has ramped up due in part to a new generation of foreign counterparts entering office, including Trudeau, whom Obama hosted for a state dinner earlier this year. It’s also come as Obama’s closest European allies were either forced from office, like Prime Minister David Cameron, have seen their political star dim, like French President Francois Hollande, or are nearing the end of their terms, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
That’s left an uncertainty in Europe as Obama prepares to hand off US foreign policy to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. The same nationalist and anti-trade forces that have propelled Trump to the top of the Republican ticket are at work in Europe, too. Obama has issued a full-throated pushback against those sentiments in Europe to decidedly mixed results.
In Renzi, Obama has found a like-minded liberal who has emerged as Europe’s top advocate for strong transatlantic ties. The pair have worked jointly to address migration issues and European stability; they’ve also spent time jogging together during global summits. Renzi has voiced eager support for Obama’s stalled TTIP trade plan with the EU and has been a strong voice in Europe against austerity fiscal policy.
But Renzi himself isn’t secure in his job. Italians vote in a December 4 referendum of a slate of constitutional reforms he says are necessary for effective governing. Meanwhile, nationalist parties are gaining ground in capitals across the continent.
Like Cameron, Renzi could find himself politically wounded after the referendum vote in December, when Italians will decide on a set of constitutional reforms the Prime Minister has pushed to streamline the governing process.
Obama supports those reforms, his aides said, believing they will help jolt a paralyzed legislative process. But stepping into yet another sticky referendum vote could prove tricky for a president whose stance on the last two closely-watched foreign votes — on Britain’s exit from the EU and Colombia’s adoption of a peace deal with the FARC rebels — ended up being opposed by the people.
“In general, we don’t like to interfere or intervene in democratic processes in other countries, and we don’t like it when other countries do it to us,” said Kupchan. “As a general rule of thumb, the referendum that’s upcoming in Italy should be left up to the Italian electorate. That having been said, the President is supportive of the agenda, economic and political, that Renzi is pursuing.”
That includes making a push toward the trade deal with Europe, even as other European leaders, including in Germany and the UK, have backed away from the notion amid anti-trade sentiments. In their talks Tuesday, Obama and Renzi were expected to confer on the viability of the trade deal going forward.
They also planned to discuss the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, where migrants fleeing turmoil in Northern Africa and the Middle East have faced peril and death reaching Europe on overstuffed boats.
The pair will take questions from reporters at a midday news conference Tuesday, where questions about the contentious political race in the US were also expected to arise. Renzi has openly backed Clinton in the race.
Despite their similarities, Renzi hasn’t been an entirely consistent ally for Obama, hesitating to enact tougher sanctions on Russia for its incursion into Ukraine as his country remains dependent on Moscow for oil.
Renzi has insisted the invitation from the White House concerns US-Italy ties, not an endorsement of him or his policies.
“It’s a symbolic fact, not a personal one. It’s the recognition on the part of our beloved and principal ally of how strong a friendship, a relationship, can be,” Renzi said at a workers’ conference in Florence Monday before leaving for Washington.
Renzi has vowed to resign his post if the constitutional reforms fail to pass, though as polls have showed support stalling in recent weeks he’s avoided repeating his promise.
On Monday, the Prime Minister was effusive in his praise of Obama, with whom he shares both an agenda and a preferred successor.
“Obama will go down in history for having written some very important pages in good government,” Renzi said.