WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama called it a “bittersweet moment” on Tuesday as he and first lady Michelle Obama welcomed the Italian leader and his wife for an official visit and the final state dinner of his time in office. But the president added with a big grin: “It’s OK.”
With herald trumpets and a full dose of pomp and pageantry, the arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House turned into a time for nostalgia and a moment for mutual admiration between Obama and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Obama described the 41-year-old Italian leader as young and handsome and credited him with putting forward a “strong vision” that challenges the status quo.
Renzi, in turn, told Obama: “We think history will be kind with you, Mr. President.”
The visit provides star treatment for a key European ally who soon faces a critical leadership test in his home country.
The daylong visit will be a glitzy affair that features celebrity chef Mario Batali in the kitchen and singer Gwen Stefani performing after the dinner.
White House officials describe the two political leaders as ideologically sharing a great deal of common ground, most notably their belief in the importance of a strongly integrated Europe. Britain’s decision to exit the European Union is testing that vision, and a Dec. 4 referendum in Italy on the government’s proposed overhaul of the constitution could derail Renzi’s political future if it fails.
The White House said Obama strongly supports the economic and political reform efforts that Renzi has undertaken as prime minister, and he wanted to show it.
“He wants to actually demonstrate the strength of the relationship with Italy as well as to get behind and put wind in the sails of someone he sees as one of the most promising young politicians in Europe,” said Charles Kupchan, senior director for European affairs at Obama’s National Security Council.
Kupchan said it goes without saying that Europe has faced tough times over the last couple of years with sluggish growth and a migration and refugee crisis stemming from conflict in the Middle East. Those trends have created an undercurrent of anti-European Union sentiment. He said Obama believes that Renzi’s agenda to revitalize Europe is critically important to the long-term interests of the United States.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama felt it was important before he left office “to memorialize” the partnership and friendship the two countries share.
After the ornate arrival ceremony for Renzi and his wife, Mrs. Agnese Landini, the two leaders met in the Oval Office. They will participate in a joint news conference at midday. The state dinner in the evening will take place on the South Lawn.
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