Obama looks to lift Italy's Renzi to cement agenda in Europe

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Story highlights

  • Obama hopes the left-leaning Renzi will continue his legacy on the global stage
  • But Renzi himself isn't secure in his job

Washington (CNN)President Barack Obama chose 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.

But even Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whom Obama feted Tuesday with the highest form of Washington flattery, isn't a certain bearer of the Obama legacy on a continent gripped with uncertainty and populist fervor.
    Both Obama and Renzi warned Tuesday that an isolated Europe would be harmful for economic growth. And while Obama insisted Renzi remain in office even if his proposed constitutional reforms are voted down in December, neither leader expressed much certainty about Europe in the months and years ahead.
    "I believe that we find ourselves in a season of our political lives," Renzi said through a translator at a midday press conference in the White House Rose Garden. "Maybe some people choose hatred, the culture of intolerance. We have to bet on liberty. We have to bet on our identity, the values that make this country extraordinary. And Europe -- Europe has a desperate need to find its own soul."
    Obama, meanwhile, warned that nationalist voices in the United States and Europe would only be amplified if governments fail to address the valid concerns of citizens.
    President Barack Obama meets Italian Premier Matteo Renzi at Villa Madama on March 27, 2014 in Rome, Italy.
    "There's probably been no group of people who've enjoyed more prosperity and more peace over the last several decades than a united Europe," Obama said. "If it begins now splintering because their sense is the global capitals and elites are not attentive to the ordinary concerns of people, that would be a tragedy. And my hope is that that discussion, led by Matteo and others, will continue."
    The visit came 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 hoped 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 said Tuesday he supports those reforms, believing they will help jolt a paralyzed legislative process. But he was careful not to wade too deeply 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.
    "I won't weigh in on the referendum, but the reforms Matteo is initiating, certainly on the economic side, are the right ones," Obama said. "And in a global, Internet-driven world, governments have to be able to move fast and quickly and transparently."
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    On Tuesday, Obama and Renzi made 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. They also discussed 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.
    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.
    And he's 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 Tuesday, Obama said his partner should remain in place, even if he finds himself wounded in December.
    "I am rooting for success, but I think you should hang around for a while no matter what," Obama said.
    For his part, Renzi -- who openly backs Clinton in the upcoming election -- acknowledged that attention in the US and abroad wasn't on his own political troubles.
    "I have a feeling, and I think that rightly so, our American friends are a little bit more interested in November 8 than in the Italian vote on constitutional reform," he said. "And so are we, might I add."