Berlusconi, The Anti-Obama, Comes To The White House

(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
To understand the phenomenon that is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who visits the White House today, simply consider his latest scandal, which centers on an alleged inappropriate relationship between the 72-year-old Italian leader and an 18-year-old model named Noemi Letizia.

When Berlusconi's wife cited the alleged dalliance in announcing her desire for a divorce, Berlusconi called on her to apologize for doing so; when the press took up the issue, he characterized the media as little more than tools of the leftist opposition. As the scandal grew, the prime minister called on Italian businesses not to advertise with media outlets of which he disapproves. (For the record, Berlusconi says he is just friends with Letizia.)

This is not uncharacteristic behavior for Berlusconi: The wealthy Italian media baron, whose holdings have prompted charges of massive conflicts of interest, is popular in Italy despite criminal charges and rumors of mafia ties. He recently saw the publication of photographs of topless young women – along with a naked European politician – at his Sardinian villa, and now faces an investigation of whether the prime minister's official jet was used inappropriately to take guests to the villa.

Berlusconi, in other words, is not exactly "No Drama" – two words often used to describe his American counterpart, President Barack Obama. The two men, pictured above at the G20 Summit in April, are wildly dissimilar, both ideologically and stylistically. One analyst told National Public Radio that the wary Obama team simply does not understand Berlusconi.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Italian leader can even boast an Obama-related gaffe: Asked in November about the then-president elect, Berlusconi called Mr. Obama "young, handsome and also tanned."

Berlusconi has more to gain from his meeting with Mr. Obama this afternoon than vice versa. The latest round of scandals seem to actually be doing some damage to the prime minister, at least internationally, and he could use a boost in his stature as a statesman amid charges that he has become something more akin to a clown.

As for the president, he's looking to make headway with Berlusconi on the economy and other issues ahead of the Group of Eight session, which will be hosted in Italy next month. Italy has been neutral in the debate between the U.S. and Britain on one side and Germany and other European nations on the other over government spending to spur the world's depressed economy. Berlusconi also has a good relationship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that could potentially benefit (or hinder) the president at some point in the future.

Of course, perhaps the prime motivation for the president is simply to get the meeting out of the way. The Obama administration has been keeping the Italian leader at a distance, but they couldn't do so forever, and the decision appears to have been made that the time had come for Mr. Obama to put on a smile and publicly signal that the two men are forging common ground. It will be interesting to watch the president's body language following the two men's 4:15 pm ET meeting this afternoon to see if it tells a different story.

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