WASHINGTON – The president of the United States and the president of Russia enjoyed quite a summer’s day on Thursday: Grab some burgers, joke about Twitter, take a walk in the park.
No summit, no sanctions, no weapons treaty. Yet they did strike a deal on chicken exports.
This is the new day, on intentional display, between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It’s not all about nukes. Obama’s first time hosting Medvedev at the White House will probably be remembered most for the extent to which they got along like a couple of buddies.
You want fries with that? Yes, they did. In fact, they shared some.
It was all a metaphor for two countries that were once at risk of Cold War annihilation, and just two years ago were back to cold shoulder animosity.
And for Obama, on an oppressively hot day, in the midst of a most difficult week, it amounted to a surprising chance to relax.
The buzz around the White House centered much more on the presidents’ unexpected jaunt for cheeseburgers to Ray’s Hell Burger in Virginia – Medvedev took jalapenos – and less about the many substantive matters they discussed.
Even Obama acknowledged the topics seemed a bit foreign.
“You know, sometimes it’s odd when you’re sitting in historic meetings with your Russian counterpart to spend time talking about chicken,” Obama conceded in describing an agreement to export U.S poultry products to Russia.
Yet he said it was, in fact, a multibillion-dollar matter and a sign of something even greater: the ability of the United States and Russia to get beyond nuclear security, one of the areas in which both sides have made concrete progress in recent months.
Now they can talk more about trade, technology, space and sports.
The smiling Obama was a man in contrast to the one of a day earlier, when he was forced to sack the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for a magazine story in which the military leader and his aides had mocked and ripped administration leaders.
“We may be able to finally throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long,” Obama said, evoking the symbol of scary U.S.-Russia relations. Obama said that was doable because both men have Twitter accounts, although he flubbed the line, calling the social networking site “Twitters.”
Upon questions from reporters, Obama said there will be no more firings in the chain of command over Afghanistan, although he will be sternly monitoring his team. Medvedev seemed reluctant to wade into the topic, recalling the ultimately disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan decades ago.
“I have quite friendly relations with President Obama,” he deferred, “but I try not to give pieces of advice that cannot be fulfilled.”
The presidents showed solidarity on a range of matters:
•Coordinated humanitarian aid for Kyrgyzstan, racked by deadly unrest in the wake of the president’s ouster there.
•Russia’s push to join the World Trade Organization, which has stalled. Obama endorsed wholeheartedly the idea as a matter of world interest.
•Concerted efforts to get lawmakers in both countries to ratify a new deal that would reduce the nuclear weapons of both nations.
Where there was conflict, even that was framed in an upbeat way.
The United States is still at significant odds with Russia over the fallout of its war with Georgia just two summers ago, back when tensions were soaring. Obama used code, saying “we addressed those differences candidly,” and Medvedev agreed.
Both said they could thrive even despite disagreements.
And nothing says harmony like busting out of the White House for burgers.
The photo of the day showed Obama and Medvedev squeezed into a table with their interpreters, chowing down at the restaurant.
“An interesting place, which is typically American,” is how Medvedev described it later in an East Room news conference. “Probably it’s not quite healthy. But it’s very tasty. You can feel the spirit of America.”
Obama and Medvedev had met six times before in spots across the globe, including last summer in Moscow. Yet this was the first time in 17 months that Obama had played host to the Russian president at the White House, and Medvedev got a rare bit of special treatment.
For an appearance at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a block from the White House, the presidents skipped the motorcade. Instead they strolled through Lafayette Park, side by side, suit coats slung over their shoulders. The gathering spot had been cleared of tourists for security.
Until the next visit, Medvedev promised that he and Obama would stay in touch.
Just to underscore the point, he said when the two talk by phone, they really talk. The last chat was a personal record: 1 hour and 45 minutes.