A Friend in Need

Obama, Renzi, and Italy's Referendum

U.S. President Barack Obama and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the White House, October 2016. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

On Tuesday, October 18, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi dined at the White House for what may turn out to be Barack Obama’s last state dinner as U.S. president. This honor was the Obama administration’s way of showing gratitude. Renzi has supported the administration in Europe and the Mediterranean, agreed to sanctions on Russia that go against Italy’s material interests, and advocated for a macroeconomic policy position—in favor of fiscal stimulus—that is more consistent with the one taken by the U.S. Treasury than with those advocated by the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Central Bank.

The invitation, though, was more than a show of gratitude: it was also a signal of support. In less than two months, on December 4, Renzi will face an important popular referendum on his constitutional reform agenda, upon which he has staked his political career. If he wins, he will be able to pursue his economic reform agenda at home and European integration abroad. If he loses, however, he will most likely resign from office and Italy will turn inward, as its politicians become embroiled in a protracted fight over reforming the country’s political institutions. Speaking at their joint press conference last night, Obama admitted that although he is “rooting for success" in the referendum, he hopes that the Italian leader will “hang around for a while no matter what.”


Renzi is attempting to transform the Italian political system, which is in dire need of fixing. The country’s constitution requires that the government have majorities in both chambers of parliament to pass legislation. Since the two chambers are elected using different formulas of proportional representation, the Italian parliament has traditionally been a patchwork of parties, with governments required to juggle numerous particular interests in order to put together a large enough coalition to pass laws. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Italy had 49 governments from 1946 to 1992, a period referred to colloquially as the “First Republic.” As

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