November 11, 2009

Article at Reuters

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WITNESS: Face to face with America's "rock star" president

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - We were led through a door that is usually forbiddingly closed, past a clutch of burly Secret Service agents, around a corner, and there he was, in a corridor leading to the Oval Office.

President Barack Obama answers questions during an interview with Reuters political editor Patsy Wilson (L), Reuters White House correspondent Caren Bohan (2nd R) and Reuters Washington Bureau Chief Simon Denyer (R) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, November 9, 2009. The interview had been pitched as a preview of the trip he is starting this week to Asia, and especially about China. Picture taken November 9, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

Barack Obama, America’s “rock star” president, greeted us with a smile and a handshake.

I had felt a little nervous before the interview, partly because we had so little time allotted, just 15 minutes to try to extract some news.

But I also felt a buzz of adrenalin. In a room that evokes history, power and tradition, we were waved to our seats by America’s first black president and a man who has caught the imagination of the world like few of his predecessors.

So what is he really like, my friends wanted to know afterward.

He seemed friendly and charming of course, but businesslike too; cautious and deliberative mostly, but sharp and amusing at times. He was very obviously proud of his daughters and maybe a little sensitive about his Nobel Peace Prize.

He was thin and angular, confident and smart, perhaps a little grayer around the temples than I had thought. I found myself noticing his Calvin Klein socks and long, black shoes.

As we walked in, we chatted briefly about a wooden carving from Burundi in the corridor, and then we sat. He was on a chair in front of the fireplace, the three of us were on couches on either side.

Obama knows my colleague Caren Bohan from his election campaign, and asked her about her son and what she was reading him.

He told us how his 11-year-old daughter, Malia, reads for herself these days, but said he was also reading her Yann Martel’s best-selling novel “Life of Pi.” A “wonderful book,” he said, that was enthralling his daughter.

“There are whole chapters that really have to do with Hinduism, Christianity,” he said. The proud father added, “There is a lot of philosophical stuff in there, but for some reason she is hanging in there.”

But, “don’t mean to use up your time on children’s literature,” he said, and we were down to business. “Who is starting?”

The interview had been pitched as a preview of the trip he is starting this week to Asia, and especially about China.

We worked through our carefully prepared questions, attempting the occasional follow-up but acutely conscious that time spent trying to pin down an answer was time eaten up.

As we talked, I also absorbed the atmosphere.

The desk under which John F. Kennedy’s son had famously played seemed a little smaller than I had imagined, not quite adequate for the world’s weightiest decisions. And was the Oval Office always this yellow?.

Just behind the president, I spotted the bust of Martin Luther King that Obama requested and that has replaced a bust of Winston Churchill. I also saw another Obama choice, Norman Rockwell’s painting of the torch of the Statue of Liberty against a pale blue sky.

Obama began the interview without the clutch of aides we might have expected. His spokesman Robert Gibbs wandered in late in the interview to perch on the desk. This was obviously a president who didn’t need help dealing with our questions.

We asked about China’s currency, America’s trade gap and China’s holdings of U.S. debt. Obama warned of “enormous strains” on relations between the world’s most powerful nations if those imbalances were not fixed.


With time running out, we moved on to nuclear disarmament.

Perhaps it was my imagination, or was the president a little awkward when we mentioned his Nobel prize -- an award many saw as premature -- and suggested he wasn’t making a whole load of progress in stemming the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea?

“Well, first of all, I think it’s very important to say that if by lack of progress you’re suggesting we have not already eliminated nuclear weapons from the face of the earth in the first nine months of my administration, then that’s true,” he said, with a smile.

The interview was almost over. The president kept talking and was passed a note. Gibbs hovered. We had a chance for a final question.

Would the president admit to any mistakes? Bush had famously been stumped by the same question at the end of his first term, saying he could not think of any.

“Oh, we make at least one mistake a day,” Obama said smoothly, to laughter.

“I don’t think we’ve made big mistakes. I don’t think we’ve made fundamental mistakes,” he said. “There are constant sort of things that I think have proven unnecessary distractions. But in terms of the core decisions that we’ve made ... I feel very good about our progress.”

And then our time was up.

“Next time we see each other I’m sure I will have all the nuclear stuff solved,” Obama joked as we left.


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