WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to boost a close ally, President Barack Obama threw his support Tuesday behind efforts that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is taking to overhaul that country's political system and enhance its economy, saying that Renzi's "bold" and "progressive" leadership was exactly what Europe needs at a time of crisis and soul-searching.
Obama invited Renzi to the White House for the final official visit and state dinner of his presidency, telling hundreds of spectators at the arrival ceremony that "we saved the best for last."
Throughout Tuesday's events, the two leaders recited a long list of issues on which they agree. They want to speed economic growth through investments in infrastructure and to move forward with a sweeping trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union. They also spoke of the importance of strengthening the NATO alliance and the need to maintain sanctions against Russia in place until that nation and Ukraine implement commitments under a ceasefire agreement brokered early last year.
Beyond action on specific issues, Obama clearly sought to use the symbolism behind Tuesday's visit to show support for a leader that Obama views as one of the most promising young politicians in Europe. The star treatment came just a few weeks before voters in Italy take up a governing referendum that Renzi has spearheaded. He has said he would resign if voters reject it.
While Renzi declined to directly answer whether he would follow through on that statement if the referendum is voted down, Obama did and said, "I am rooting for success, but I think you should hang around for a while no matter what."
Obama kicked the White House apparatus into high gear. The sound of herald trumpets and a full dose of pomp and pageantry on the South Lawn were orchestrated to welcome Renzi, one of the few world leaders to receive such a reception from the White House.
After each leader spoke, they hugged briefly and patted each other on the back.
"I mean, look at him," Obama gushed. "He's young, handsome. He's put forth a vision of progress that's not rooted in people's fears, but rather in their hopes. "
Renzi, seemingly nodding to the divisive presidential election in the U.S. next month and the United Kingdom's decision to exit the European Union, said, "I think there are a lot of people who think that politics is only about screaming, fighting each other. Hate creates division. You are different, Mr. President. We are different."
The two leaders moved from the arrival ceremony to the Oval Office for private meetings. They emerged for a joint news conference in the Rose Garden and again sought to emphasize strong relations between their two nations. Obama said America has many strong allies around the world but that few are as strong, reliable and capable as the boot-shaped country. "In good times and in bad, we count on each other," Obama said.
Meanwhile, Renzi said he'd copied Obama by creating a "jobs act" modeled after the stimulus legislation that Obama pushed when he came into office. Renzi said the initiative had created significant jobs in economically challenged Italy, calling it "at least a first step to leave our difficult situation."
"I want to thank the United States of America for the extraordinary support for the battle that Italy is having in our country, within Europe, to affirm a paradigm of growth and not only of austerity at all levels," Renzi said.
Europe has faced some tough times in the past few years, with sluggish growth and a refugee crisis spawned by the conflict in the Middle East contributing to an undercurrent of anti-European Union sentiment. Obama said Renzi's agenda is important to long-term U.S. interests.
The arrival ceremony marked the beginning of a daylong visit that will be capped with a lavish state dinner in a tent on the South Lawn for approximately 400 guests. Celebrity chef Mario Batali is helping in the kitchen and singer Gwen Stefani is entertaining after dinner.
During the arrival ceremony, Obama spoke about how Italian Americans have helped shape the United States. He said their experience was often one of arriving with nothing, of overcoming prejudice and discrimination, and relying on faith and the love of family to succeed. He said that experience reveals a "truth we must never forget, and that is America was built by immigrants, America is stronger because of immigrants, America is great because of immigrants."
Associated Press writers Nancy Benac, Darlene Superville and Julie Pace contribute to this report.