Latvian President Valdis Zatlers visited the White House on April 1. He was on a tour of the United States that took him to Michigan, Illinois and Washington, D.C.
His visit was covered by the Latvian press, where some mention was made that Zatlers did not meet with President Barack Obama but instead met with Vice President Joe Biden. One prominent political commentator in Latvia suggested that without a meeting with the U.S. president, the trip could be classified as tourism.
To help bring clarification to the controversy, the public schedules of both the U.S. president and vice president, which are posted on whitehouse.gov, were reviewed from Jan. 1 through April 15. The president and vice president conducted 23 publicized meetings with foreign leaders at the White House, as follows:
|Head of state||Head of gov’t
or other high official
The president and vice president also made foreign trips. In January, Biden had an unannounced visit to Afghanistan. Obama visited Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, while Biden traveled to Finland, Russia and Moldova, in March.
Biden represented the administration in meeting one head of state, in the White House: President Zatlers. He had separate meetings with the president of Israel and the amir of Qatar, however, these were coupled with additional sessions with the U.S. president. Obama received or conferred with eight heads of state and eight other foreign leaders. The trend clearly indicates that Obama greets presidents and other heads of state. In addition, the U.S. president received government leaders from China, Lebanon, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Slovenia, Ireland and Greece.
Press coverage of these meetings can be separated into three categories: public statements and questions, simply a photo opportunity or closed to the press. Only one scheduled White House event involving a head of state was closed to the press: Biden’s meeting with Zatlers. In addition, meetings by the foreign minister of Japan, the prime minister of Lebanon and the vice president of Colombia were closed to the press. An unscheduled meeting between Obama and Kyrgyzstani President Roza Otunbayeva on March 7 was also closed to the press. Obama joined a meeting between his national security advisor and the Kyrgyzstani president. Denmark is Latvia’s closest neighbor on the list. Obama received Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen in the Oval Office, where they also delivered public statements; a video was posted on whitehouse.gov.
Politico.com published a light-hearted April 1 article, “Hey, where’s Biden? Receiving Latvia’s highest honor!”, regarding the vice president’s meeting with Zatlers. The author, Julie Mason, implied that the White House did not seem to know that Valdis was the first name of President Zatlers and wondered what prompted the vice president being awarded Latvia’s Order of Three Stars. Under the heading of “Statements and Releases” whitehouse.gov posts “readouts” of contacts with foreign leaders. This is the information that Mason used to construct her article and briefly characterizes the nature of meetings with foreign leaders. The statements and releases, the public schedule and the White House blog were reviewed for the period in question. Neither the president nor vice president received similar honors from any other visiting foreign leader.
In grouping and categorizing whitehouse.gov information regarding visits by foreign leaders, it is clear that the meeting between the president of Latvia and the U.S. vice president was unusual, to say the least. It seems that requesting a White House meeting was overreaching and probably consumed quite a bit of goodwill and political capital. The Obama administration was more accommodating than welcoming. President Zatlers is standing for uncertain re-election this summer and this enterprise should be viewed in that context.
Latvian President Valdis Zatlers presents the Order of Three Stars to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their April 1 meeting in the White House. (Photo by Toms Kalniņš, Chancery of the President of Latvia)
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