Is the key to Obama’s heart an iPhone selfie?

Some time ago, U.S. president seemed to have awkward encounters with fellow world leaders

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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Leaders around the world and members of the Republican party inside the United States, have long been mystified on how “to connect” with U.S. President Barack Obama. One way or another, they might all owe Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt some credit for solving the enigma and getting Obama to giggle, loosen up and even snap a “selfie” at the Nelson Mandela memorial this week.

Etiquette aside, the Helle-Barack selfie might be the closest and most comfortable snapshot we have seen the U.S. president in next to a foreign leader.

Obama’s past encounters with foreign leaders have been very business like, “professorial” at times, and awkward at others. The most awkward might have been in 2009, when Obama met Queen Elizabeth, gave her an iPod as a gift and the U.S. First Lady Michele Obama hugged her. It has also become evident that when the guest in Washington is the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chemistry in the Oval Office would just fly out of the room. Netanyahu lectured Obama in 2011 and despite their many meetings, the warmth was simply not there.

Obama took the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron to a basketball game, shared burgers and chili bowls with Russia’s Dimitri Medvedev and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, but they were not buddies. At least not the way that former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were with Tony Blair for example.

Obama’s past encounters with foreign leaders have been very business like, “professorial” at times, and awkward at others

Joyce Karam

Then came the dull and bored looks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki last month. At some level, you can not shoulder all the blame on the U.S. president, as Clinton also clashed with Israel’s Netanyahu, and former Republican President George W. Bush’s last press conference with Maliki in 2008 involved dodging a shoe.

The complaints from regional leaders behind closed doors about Obama, have been about his “lawyer-like” and very business-like demeanor. He lays out the issues, the pros and cons of a situation and points out the administration preferences. But there is no “Crawford ranch” meetings or Camp David invitations from the current President. Obama's vacations at Martha’s Vineyard are family oriented and he still prefers to have dinner with his family.

This trend has impacted Obama’s relations with the Republicans in Congress. Some GOP strategists have called him “aloof” and “elitist”, and former Bush advisor Karl Rove portrayed him as the “guy at the country club holding a martini.”

The Helle effect

The images of Obama and Thorning-Schmidt we saw in Johannesburg completely break with the “aloof” and detached stereotype. They were chatting, laughing and Obama padded her on the shoulder. They seemed to be joking around, until U.S. First Lady had to switch seats with him.

Perhaps it’s because they are relatively young compared to other world leader, they both enjoy good looks and are close in age (46 and 52). Another reason could be attributed to the Danish Prime Minister being a progressive leader, and very much like Obama espouses policies towards more economic equality and immigration reform.

Or it could just be her iPhone.


Judging by the photos, Thorning-Schmidt did not let go of the device during the memorial. Browsing, checking email or snapping photos, the Prime Minister is very much attached to her iPhone. Compare this to Obama who for security reasons, is not allowed to have an iPhone, and has to use a government-issued Blackberry. Among other shortcomings, Blackberries are not known for their cameras, and are probably not the best devices to take a selfie from. The U.S. President owns an iPad which takes selfies, but might be little bulky for public use, let alone at a memorial service.

The Johannesburg selfie has left Obama with plenty of criticism for his “adolescent” behavior and “no selfie respect” at a memorial. Some critics are calling him “President Selfie” while chatter has started about “selfie diplomacy.”

But for all what it’s worth, this was a genuine light moment between two world leaders, and one that captures good chemistry rarely seen in the Obama presidency. Thanks are in order for Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Nelson Mandela and Apple Inc.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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