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Sarkozy Visit Spotlights Obama's Diplomatic Style

President Obama welcomes French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the White House today, a visit that includes dinner in the private residence with their spouses. Beyond the wide range of issues on the agenda, the meeting calls attention not just to a strained relationship between Paris and Washington, but broader questions about the American leader's diplomatic acumen.

The treatment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a White House visit last week had the White House playing defense again. Senior adviser David Axelrod claimed "there was no snub intended" when the president left a meeting to have dinner with his family, leaving the prime minister and his staff alone for hours before Obama was called to return. Just over a year ago, the British press were frenzied over perceived protocol slights on a visit by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, ranging from the lack of a Rose Garden press conference to Obama's choice of a personal gift -- a set of DVDs.

And Sarkozy himself reportedly felt snubbed last summer when Obama declined a personal invitation to dine together when the president visited France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D Day. Analysts say Obama's seeming lack of a rapport with some of his overseas counterparts stands in stark contrast with the approach of his predecessor.

"President Bush prided himself on these personal relationships that he had with key foreign leaders, and that those relationships would see them through difficult bilateral or multilateral issues," said Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think particularly for Europe, as much as President Bush was divisive to Europe, so many of those leaders loved that relationship with him. They loved getting invited to Crawford or to Kennebunkport. And they're not finding that type of relationship with President Obama."

Obama, she said, seems to be a more "workmanlike leader" who seems satisfied with a purely professional relationship.

"He doesn't need the warm and fuzzy. He's about, 'Let's get the work done. I'm busy. I've got lots of things to do - if you can help me, great, if not, step aside,'" she said.

The relationship with Sarkozy is a bit more complicated considering the French leader's outspoken criticism of Obama's leadership at times. At the United Nations last fall, Sarkozy implied that Obama was hopelessly naive in his quest for a world without nuclear weapons, saying, "We are living in a real world, not a virtual world."

But the timing of the visit is significant in that it comes as each leader's political fortunes appear to be diverging. Sarkozy is now faced with growing unpopularity at home, with approval ratings now at the lowest point of his presidency. Obama has seen his own popularity tumble, but he's also fresh off a major political victory with the passage of his health reform plan. Conley points to the view that Sarkozy enters the White House a bit humbled.

"Sarkozy needs this photo op in many respects much more than President Obama does," she said. "He has had a really tough week, and President Obama is still very personally popular in France. Sarkozy could do well to start the week with a lot of pictures of the two leaders on the front pages of the French papers."

The White House seems eager to work to repair that relationship as well. The personal dinner of the two first couples is one signal, Conley said. In addition, the bilateral Oval Office meeting will be followed by that Rose Garden press availability that the UK's Brown had himself sought.

"I think they wanted to add some sweeteners to the visit," she said of the White House.

That protocol of the visit is notable not just for the foreign visitors. The White House press corps, for its part, has been increasingly unhappy with the lack of open press opportunities during recent visits of other heads of state, even a simple "pool spray" in the Oval Office. In some cases, the only pictures made public were taken by official White House photographers.