For Obama, no buddies abroad
Other U.S. presidents have bonded with foreign leaders, but Obama so far has no such ties. Does that matter?
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, sit down for dinner with the Obamas in the White House family dining room March 30, it will be a rare occasion for Barack Obama: a private, personal, perhaps even chatty evening with another world leader.Skip to next paragraph
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Fourteen months into the Obama presidency, one striking feature of an American president who took office to a swooning world is the absence of any strong personal ties – or even a go-to working relationship – with any other world leader. Where Ronnie had Maggie, and Bill and even George W. had Tony, Mr. Obama has no one leader. Instead, the former law professor has what seems to be a preference for big-themed foreign speeches (think Cairo; Prague, Czech Republic; Moscow; Accra, Ghana) and policy gatherings (his UN nuclear summit, the Pittsburgh Group of 20 economic summit, a White House nuclear nonproliferation summit in May) bereft of the warm and fuzzy.
A dinner chat with Sarkozy
Even the Sarkozy dinner seems to be more an amendsmaker than a familiar, "Hey Sarko, why don't you come on over for dinner and some one-on-one conversation?" When the Obamas were in Paris last year, Obama turned down a dinner invitation to the Elyseé Palace, ostensibly so he could take Michelle out for a private night on the town.
Obama's cool, all-business demeanor with his global peers is all the more striking because it follows the polar-opposite style of George W. Bush. President Bush's policies were widely reviled overseas, and he was not particularly articulate. But he strove to forge personal links with a few key leaders. He cultivated Tony Blair's friendship on Iraq, and he developed a hierarchy of visit venues – White House, Camp David, his Texas ranch – that signaled where a leader stood in his estimation. He walked hand in hand with the Saudi king, and even tried massaging German Chancellor Angela Merkel's shoulders – although the latter gesture fell particularly flat.
Bush's comment about "looking into his soul" upon meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested a desire to know and understand the leader, whereas Obama has yet to find his soul mate on the world stage – and may not be inclined to find one.
No special relationship
"It really is striking about Obama: Most presidents have had a special or close relationship with a foreign leader they could turn to," says Thomas Henriksen, a US foreign-policy scholar at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "But it appears to be his nature or personality, the so-called no-drama-Obama thing."
Others link the dearth of leader-level friendships to Obama's personality as well.