White House host­ing fewer state din­ners un­der Pres­i­dent Obama


An in­vi­ta­tion to a White House state din­ner has al­ways been one of Wash­ing­ton’s most soughtafter tick­ets. There’s the el­e­gant set­ting, VIP guests in tuxe­dos and designer gowns and a four-course meal served up by Amer­ica’s most fa­mous kitchen.

But don’t get your hopes up. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has held the fewest num­ber of state din­ners since Harry S. Tru­man, who left of­fice 62 years ago.

In his first six years, Obama held just seven state din­ners. He’ll hold at least two more this year, for the lead­ers of Ja­pan, on April 28, and China, later in the year.

Tru­man, who be­came pres­i­dent in 1945, held six din­ners dur­ing nearly eight years in of­fice.

Shrouded in pageantry, a White House state din­ner is the high­est diplo­matic honor the U.S. re­serves for al­lies and other coun­tries. It’s also one of the most lav­ish af­fairs the gov­ern­ment puts on. The State Depart­ment pays the en­tire tab, which av­er­aged about US$500,000 each for Obama’s seven din­ners, said White House spokesman Pa­trick Ven­trell.

Ven­trell and oth­ers said cost was a con­cern when Obama took of­fice in Jan­uary 2009 amid the worst eco­nomic slide since the 1930s. Of­fi­cials were sen­si­tive to the eco­nomic dis­tress blan­ket­ing the coun­try and were look­ing for other ways the pres­i­dent could ce­ment re­la­tion­ships with for­eign lead­ers with­out spend­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of public dol­lars on an op­u­lent black-tie din­ner.

Obama held his first state din­ner to­ward the end of his first year in of­fice, hon­or­ing then-In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh. Later din­ners were for the lead­ers of Mex­ico, China, Ger­many, South Korea, the United King­dom and France.

Aides say Obama’s over­all level of en­gage­ment with for­eign coun­ter­parts and the dif­fer­ent ways he in­ter­acts with them is more im­por­tant than the num­ber of state din­ners pen­ciled on his cal­en­dar. “State din­ners are one tool of diplo­macy that can be used and used ef­fec­tively, and some­times we use them,” Ven­trell said.

From 28 to 54

Obama has met hun­dreds of times with his coun­ter­parts and other for­eign of­fi­cials in set­tings as for­mal as the Oval Of­fice and as ca­sual as a Hawai­ian golf course. They also speak by phone.

“There’s no con­cern that should be raised by the num­ber of state din­ners,” said Capri­cia Mar­shall, who led the State Depart­ment team that over­sees vis­its by for­eign dig­ni­taries un­til she stepped down in 2013.

Lyn­don B. John­son topped the 11 pres­i­dents who fol­lowed Tru­man, cram­ming 54 state din­ners into his 62-month ten­ure in the Oval Of­fice, White House His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion data show.

Ron­ald Rea­gan, the ac­tor­turned-politi­cian who knew a thing or two about en­ter­tain­ing, held 52 din­ners dur­ing two terms.

Even Jimmy Carter, who liked to project an im­age of fru­gal­ity, man­aged 28 state din­ners in four years as pres­i­dent.

A state din­ner for a for­eign leader marks the fi­nale of a state visit, which opens with her­ald trum­pets and can­non salutes on the South Lawn of the White House, fol­lowed by meet­ings, a joint news con­fer­ence with the U.S. pres­i­dent and an elab­o­rate State Depart­ment lun­cheon. Then comes the state din­ner, where a tuxedo-clad pres­i­dent raises a glass and toasts re­la­tions be­tween the coun­tries in front of hun­dreds of in­vited guests, rang­ing from Cabi­net sec­re­taries and other se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to mem­bers of Congress, busi­ness lead­ers, celebri­ties and oth­ers, as well as the work­ing me­dia.

Obama and re­cent pres­i­dents have used mul­ti­ple for­mats and set­tings apart from a state din­ner to forge ties with their coun­ter­parts.

In 2013, Obama met Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping at the Sun­ny­lands retreat in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Obama re­turned there the fol­low­ing year to con­sult with Jor­dan’s King Ab­dul­lah II.

Obama also took Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel to din­ner at the up­scale 1789 restau­rant in Ge­orge­town; French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande to the Vir­ginia es­tate of Thomas Jef­fer­son, a for­mer pres­i­dent and for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to France; and UK Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron to an NCAA col­lege bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment game in Ohio.

On Hawaii va­ca­tions, Obama has shared his golf game with Malaysian Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak and New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter John Key.

Ge­orge W. Bush wel­comed more than a dozen for­eign lead­ers to his Texas ranch, which be­came a popular venue for Bush’s brand of ca­sual diplo­macy. He even treated then- Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Ju­nichiro Koizumi to a tour of Grace­land, the Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, home of Elvis Pres­ley, one of Koizumi’s mu­si­cal idols.

Rea­gan wel­comed Queen El­iz­a­beth II and Prince Philip to his Santa Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia, ranch. Richard Nixon re­ceived Soviet leader Leonid Brezh­nev at his home in San Cle­mente, Cal­i­for­nia.


In this Feb. 11, 2014, file photo, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, cen­ter, of­fers a toast on stage to French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande at the State Din­ner on the South Lawn of the White House in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

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