Rome is always a spectacular theater for political drama, but watching US President Barack Obama’s presidential motorcade roaring up to the Quirinale Thursday really did make me feel like a reporter extra on the set of a Hollywood thriller: Snipers patrolled the rooftops of the colorful palazzi as we waited, and shadowy figures peered out from behind the curtains of apartments overlooking the square. Dogs sniffed the planters of palms. A helicopter hovered overhead. Less than a minute later dozens of Italian and U.S. police escorts and armored SUVs sped by, and as they passed, one could see that the trunk hatches were up and the backs of the vehicles were packed with men in black sternly cradling their automatic weapons, riding backwards, ready to jump out at a moment’s notice. This is how the U.S. president does lunch.
But perhaps Obama could take a bit of heart Thursday, since his morning started off with a visit to the Vatican to see the man who, he joked “is perhaps the only person in the world who has to put up with more protocol than me.”
Later in the day, at Villa Madama, Obama gave a wide ranging press conference at the side of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who looked a bit like a starstruck teenager ready to snap a selfie at any moment. He even suggesting he might co-opt President Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes We Can,” noting it was valid today for Italy as well. The two clearly hit it off, with Obama giving him a casual “Ciao Matteo” as the two parted for the day. From my notes, here are a few of the key excerpts from Obama’s Q & A.
ON US-ITALY BONDS: “Our partnership is one of the strongest links binding Europe and the U.S. together. We share extraordinary bonds of history and family and culture.” He hinted several times at new steps to boost economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic, including significant new trade partnerships and U.S. participation in the Milan Expo. He commended Renzi for his slate of reforms and attempts to make it easier for Italian businesses to hire workers and create a more competitive economy. “There are going to be tough choices as Italy moves forward and makes hard decisions the US will continue to stand with you.”
ON UKRAINE AND RUSSIA:
Obama said the significant “economic resistance” aid package he is proposing to U.S. Congress is a concrete signal and lauded Ukrainian leaders for showing “incredible foresight” for wanting to leave behind the corruption of the past.
“We must continue to see international unity in the face of this violation of international law and Ukraine’s territorial integrity. If Russia doesn’t change course it risks growing isolation. But we are continually hopeful that Russia walks through the door of diplomacy and works with all of us to resolve this issue in a peaceful way. “
“I think I have been very clear in saying we are going to do everything we can to support Ukraine and Ukrainian people. It is also important not to promise and then not be able to deliver. Obama said it was important to make sure Ukaraine government is stable and with a good economic program, but said there must be a lot of resources devoted to it, and not just from the U.S. but also from Europe. Ukrainians want to stop the corrupt practices that led to such an inefficient economy, he said, that resulted in the fact that while they started at the same point, in just a few years Poland’s GDP skyrocketed, while Ukraine’s plummeted.
LATER FOLLOW UP ON RUSSIA SANCTIONS: We have not yet taken steps that would target entire sectors of the Russian economy, like finance or military sales or energy, but what we are doing in consultation with our allies is to work through each of those sectors and look at what kinds of sanctions could have a powerful impact. Russia is part of the world economy. Gazprom is listed on world markets. Everybody owns a piece of everything. There will be some impact. Hopefully we can design sanctions that minimize the impact on US companies or Italian companies and maximize impact on narrow set of interests in Russia that drive the decisions they are making. Even better, we don’t have to use them because Russia decides we should take the wiser course and . . . tries to resolve this in a peaceful and meaningful way.
ON ITALY’S COMMITMENT TO NATO AND DEFENSE
Obama thanked Italy for its commitment to NATO, in particular in Afghanistan, Kosovo as well as with peacekeepers in Lebanon. He noted the agreement made to remove highly enriched uranium from Italy. He noted the importance of various air campaigns and efforts to restore order in Libya and eliminate chemical weapons from Syria, noting that the chemical weapons will be transported to an Italian port for eventual transfer to U.S. ships for elimination.
OBAMA ON EUROPEAN ECONOMY
Obama said that “smart actions” by the ECB have stabilized the situation, and some countries that were under enormous market pressure are also seeing lower borrowing costs. The tough decisions “were necessary and important, and without them it could not have happened,” he said. He said he was confident that Renzi had identified important structural reforms and was optimistic about success. “I am confident he is going to be able to move Italy forward because Italy is ready to move forward.”
ON MEETING POPE FRANCIS AND RESPONSE TO CNN QUESTIONS ON WHAT WAS DISCUSSED WITH POPE FRANCIS AND IF THERE WERE TENSIONS:
“ Like many other people around the world I have been incredibly moved by his compassion and message of inclusion.”
Obama said the discussion with Pope Francis was “a wide ranging discussion,” with the bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his: conflict and inequality. Obama said that while politicians must come up with policities to address issues, “his holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes to the dangers of indifference and cynicism. “
Regarding conflict, Obama said the two talked about “how elusive peace is around the world,” with specific focus on the Middle East, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.
“I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy — the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes, and to care for someone even if they don’t talk like you, look like you or share your philosophy — is very critical.”
He then noted that two domestic issues were also addressed, the first was immigration reform. “As someone who came from Latin America, he is mindful of the plight of so many immigrants. . . . I described how I felt there was still an opportunity to get this right and get a law passed. “
Obama said he also discussed the affordable care act with Secretary of State Parolin. He said he pledged to make sure religious freedom was observed in context of applying the law and noted religious organizations were exempt and NGO’s have to attest that they have an objection and they can be exempt from providing contraception. He said he would be continuing discussions with the U.S. Conference of Bishops on the matter.
IN RESPONSE TO SECOND QUESTION ON THE MATTER:
“We didn’t talk a lot about social schisms. In fact that really was not a topic of conversation. His holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with and most I heartily agree with. . . . .”
“But we are down in the ground dealing with often profane and he is dealing with higher powers.”
IN RESPONSE TO ITALIAN QUESTION ON DEFENSE CUTS, SPECIFICALLY THE F35.
Obama said defense spending needs to be efficient and effective, noting that the U.S. has reduced defense spending by bringing two wars to a close. He said there was the need to build NATO defense capacity while also getting rid of duplication and building efficiency. Yet he also noted that there is a “certain amount of irreducible commitment” that countries must have if they are serious about NATO and the defense alliance. “We can’t have a situation in which the U.S. spends more than 3% of GDP for defense, much of that focused of that on Europe, where they are countries that spend 1%.” He noted Italy may be developing specialized capacities in North Africa and the Mediterranean.