Wide Angle: Behind the stage of a POTUS visit

The upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump conjured up decade-old memories when President Barack Obama and the then first lady Michelle Obama had visited India in 2010. I was working as a Media Advisor with the US Consulate in Mumbai and I was designated as the Overall Press lead for the visit’s Mumbai leg. The dynamics of a President visit are so complicated and those in charge of the visit have to literally manufacture a sonorous tune out of the bureaucratic cacophony that one has to wade through.

Typically the preparations for the visit begin around a month and a half before any POTUS visit (President of the United States) visit. For President Obama’s visit around more than a hundred advanced staff were stationed at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. The advance staffs include motley of secret service personnel, mid-level and senior diplomats, White house staff, hospitality experts and media relations staff from the White House. I was privy to many such advance planning meetings and what struck me as both a participant and a neutral observer was the attention to detail that was given during such visits. Among the advance staff there used to be certain staff just in-charge of picking a suitcase or someone would just be in charge of breakfast for the foreign press. For all you know the person doing the duty could be a mid-level diplomat. However, everyone took interest in the task assigned to them and did it with complete precision. No work was looked down upon.

While such visits involve a lot of event management at the internal level they also involve a large amount of co-ordination with senior powers that be in the Indian administrative and police bureaucracy. I was a part of such meetings along with Johanna Maska who was an active part of the advance team from the White House. She was formerly a part of Obama campaign team. She had joined the POTUS after he won the election and was the advance team official for many of President Obama’s foreign visits. Maska (pun unintended) had her way of working around different cultures, people and officials and getting the work done. Governments have a certain way of functioning around the super-structures that they operate. While governments are more or less similar globally, Indian government systems tend to be more hierarchical, whereas the way Americans react and interact is often more flatter and direct. The best anecdote happened during a meeting with the then top cop of Mumbai. He complained to me, Maska and the Secret service lead about the English that the American secret service staffers used with the Mumbai police and their Indian counterparts. “Some of your people at the St.Xavier college site,” complained the top cop,” they say things like before the event starts we will kick out everyone for security measures. We in India don’t use such terms. We say we will sanitise the place.”

Semantic expectations aside there were expectations skirmishes about security issues as well. However, this is something that the POTUS advance team face everywhere they go in the world. The team expected to be in complete charge of their President’s security where in certain locations the Mumbai police stuck to their guns and refused to cede control. However, during that time the US foreign policy was big on soft power and hence many people looked to forward to positive outcomes from the visit. The Mumbai visit included a visit to Mani Bhavan- the residence of the Mahatma, a Koli Dance at a Mumbai school, and paying obeisance to the terror victims at the Taj Palace Hotel. President Obama and Michelle Obama’s natural interaction with the local population as well as representatives at each pit stop ensured that none of the backroom differences came to the fore on the D- day itself.

My job also entailed attending many phone calls from non-descript places and actors. A certain person called me from interior Maharashtra and told me that they had established a ‘Barack Obama Mitra Mandal (friend circle) and he wanted an interaction with the President. A request from an unknown Urdu magazine also followed with the owner requesting a photo op with Sadr-e- Amrica. Many people often don’t take a no for an answer.

The big lesson that I learnt from my exposure to this visit was that such state visits just set the tone and contours of a relationship. The hype around them often leads people to believe that there will be dramatic outcomes. However, either countries strayed from doing anything of that sort. So often these visits are high on optics as compared to the outcomes achieved. They only chart a course of the shape that the relationship will take in the coming days. Sometimes the outcomes are just related to the intended perception outcomes that the state head desires from the visit.

However, even in terms of optics I think that President Obama was way more natural than President Trump. Trump is coming with a lot of negative baggage. The killing of Suleimani and the recent impeachment which he managed to scrape through projects him as a way more divisive figure than Obama. Furthermore, as a first hand observer I can vouch for the fact that the Obama couple could strike a direct chord with the common audiences which I doubt how much a megalomaniac like Trump will be able to achieve. These visits often leave with a lot of bruised and hurt egos at the administrative level. However, it is the chord with the common people is what people remember. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have an historic edge over Trump in this.

(The writer is a journalist and author. Views expressed are personal.)

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