Obama’s Greece Visit – Desperately Seeking Symbolism

Obama’s Greece Visit – Desperately Seeking Symbolism


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Surely by now everyone has taken a deep breath and accepted Donald Trump’s victory on November 8. Most analysts needed a number of stiff drinks and possibly a few days to reorient themselves to the new geopolitical constellation. Many are scratching their heads about the significance of a Presidential trip abroad where the “Lame Duck” President has no essentially authority to guarantee policy continuity and might better spend the time working to ensure the incoming Trump Administration doesn’t undo President Obama’s important accomplishments at home.

U.S. President Barack Obama is keeping to his plans to visit Greece, Germany and Peru starting November 15. Obama Administration officials have just reassured us via the National Security Council that visiting Greece was always an important priority for the President, but skeptics have asked the nagging question “If Greece was so important, why come only now at the end of his 8 years in office and why after the 2016 election?” Most people in Greece have also understood the unsettling new reality they face after Mr. Trump is inaugurated in January, that Greece will have lost its best and only important advocate for economic policies that do not involve high doses of austerity. In other words, whatever the creditors’ Troika (or Quartet) agrees on will become the policy.

While major U.S. news outlets have given a sentence or two to the Obama Greece stop in their coverage of the upcoming trip, in Greece the Syriza government has come under heavy fire for trying as hard as it possibly can to cast the visit as significant after the massive defeat of the Democratic Party in the U.S. elections. Of course that’s only natural; any political group would try to build up an American Presidential visit. But just review these quotes from newly-appointed Syriza spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos at a November 11 media briefing and judge for yourself if the tone isn’t overly defensive or even desperate: “We believe that the issue of Greek debt will be at the top of the agenda during Mr. Obama’s visit to our country,” “A statement by President Obama is never just a statement, but it’s political pressure so that the issue of debt can be solved,” and “Jack Lew’s statements have gone a great way toward promoting the Greek debt issue.” Tzanakopoulos also stated that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was traveling to Athens with President Obama, something we can’t yet confirm as Secretary Lew’s travels plans are not yet posted on his Department’s website (Friday was Veteran’s Day, a U.S. federal holiday, so posts may be delayed).

Tzanakopoulos admitted that the Syriza government had lowered its visit expectations somewhat – he expressed the hope that Greek Finance Minister Tsakalotos would be able to travel to a scheduled meeting of Eurozone Finance Ministers on December 5 “with a concrete statement of support for debt relief from Obama.” In essence, Greece already has that because buried deep in an interview with Kathimerini released on November 12, Obama says the following, after pressing hard for continued reform efforts, effectively checking off the box Tzanakopoulos asked for: “I am a strong believer that to make reforms sustainable, people need hope. The International Monetary Fund has said that debt relief is crucial to put Greece’s economy on a sustainable path and set the stage for a return to prosperity. This is why I will continue to urge Greece’s creditors to take the steps needed to ensure the country is well placed to return to robust economic growth, including by providing meaningful debt relief. Getting that done would not only fuel the Greek economic recovery, it would also show that Europe can make its economy work for everyone.”

We all know these written Presidential interviews are drafted by committee back in Washington, as do the Eurozone Finance Ministers. So will it make a difference? And did the team putting together Obama’s responses understand the Syriza government would try and use their otherwise helpful answers, a nice parting gift from the President, to pressure Greece’s Eurozone partners? You have to wonder if the Eurozone Ministers understand this and weren’t planning to do right by Greece all along.

In other developments related to President Obama’s Greece stopover, his layover in Athens November 15-16th has been confirmed. Details from Washington now indicate the Obama speech will focus on the impact of globalization, which may or may not qualify it as a “Legacy Speech” as it had been referred to before. The speech venue has been moved from the historic and symbolic but very exposed Pnyx Hill next to the Parthenon to an alternate location, most probably the brand new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center south of the city center. This move was done for security reasons after minor terrorist incidents in Athens, but unfortunately it robs the President of the truly amazing historical backdrop and symbolism initially planned, which would be a mere 3km away.

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