Wednesday, 26 March 2014

My experience of Obama's press conference at the March 2014 EU-US Summit

Today, President Obama was in Brussels. This, dear friends, was kind of a big deal. Because he is kind of a big deal.

Sure, he’s a Head of State just like all the other European leaders who arrived here last week for the EU Summit, but everything is about 10 times as crazy for the President of the United States.

For example, the security measures. Oh, good lord – I’ve never seen anything like it! Obama visited Flanders this morning and not only were shops told to close but locals who lived within a certain perimeter weren’t even allowed out of their houses.

Here in Brussels, I have never seen so many police in one place and all the roads have been closed off.

It’s pretty exciting for – to quote Obama himself – “brave little Belgium”. Yesterday evening I saw a woman walking round with an Obama ‘Yes we can’ badge, and I’ve just walked past a burger place that had ‘Obama’s Burger’ spray-painted on the window. Whether Obama has indeed had one of their burgers is doubtful, but it just shows how buzzing with Obama Brussels is.

At 2pm today, the President of the world’s most powerful nation was set to give a press conference in one of the EU buildings. Along with my fellow BBC journalists, we had our accreditation passes to get into the building, but there was no particular way of reserving one of the coveted seats in the press conference. It was going to be a simple first-come-first-served system. Elbows at the ready!

Heading over to the building at 12.30pm today, we thought we’d be fiiiiine. Problematically, we ran into Belgian police who stubbornly told us all entrances to the building were closed and we were not going to be getting in. Jolly good.(We’d been told access would be closed off a whole hour later.)

Not to be put off that easily, I scampered along behind our reporter and producer, desperate to find a way into the building. (They were pretty calm. I was panicking inside.)

Luckily, we managed to squeeze in. HOORAH!

But the drama wasn’t over yet. When scanning our passes to go through security, our producer was told his pass had been declined, despite the fact that it’d worked not long earlier. WHAT!? How can they just decline him access!? But they did. And they would not budge. He was then held in the lobby for about an hour before being allowed to leave the building. Ridiculous.

I headed on through the building and round to the press room, and I was not expecting to find what I did: A long queue of journalists waiting for the doors to open, hoping to bag a place in Obama’s press conference. AN HOUR AND A HALF before it was due to start!

I duly joined the queue and waited. And waited. We saw on the screen that Obama had arrived, and the excitement went up a notch. Put it this way, I was not the only excitable journalist (can I call myself that?) acting slightly like a 1D fangirl and taking pictures of the screen. We continued to wait.

45 minutes or so later, they opened the door. Cue the queue pushing forward. It actually slightly reminded me of a much calmer version of the moshing I experienced trying to get into a tent at OktoberfestExcept with seasoned, hard-hitting reporters and their camera-clutching crews rather than Dirndl/Lederhosen-clad tourists clutching beers. (Ok, it wasn’t that similar.)

In an orderly fashion, I gradually got to the front of the queue, scanned my pass, and I was in! It wasn’t a huge room and I quickly took a seat and watched the rest of the room fill up – it didn’t take long! Camera crews lined the sides and journalists packed into the auditorium. 

Filling up
Nothing had even started happening, and already everyone was snapping away on their cameras, tweeting and taking notes.
And nothing happened for some time. I suppose when you’re the President of the United States you can be as late as you like. I didn’t mind though. I was blimmin’ excited and feeling jolly lucky to have one of those coveted seats. I did kind of need the loo though…

Just after 2pm, some important-looking people came out and everyone shushed in excitement. But no, it was a false alarm. Any minute now...

We want Obama!
couple of water glasses were filled by the podiums. The press were all ready and waiting, cameras poised. Come on, Obama. I wondered what he was doing and thinking backstage. I say ‘backstage’ as if it was a concert or a show, but it did slightly have that vibe.

Will I be judged if I send a snapchat? I thought. Meh, I'm going to. (I totally did.)

Next, the official photographers came out into the aisles.Surely it must be starting soon!

A little later, getting more and more desperate for the loo (I’m sure you really needed to know that) I realised it was half past two. I noticed a woman playing that bubble game on her iPad.The excitement was palpable.

More officials streamed in to take the reserved seats on the front row, Baroness Ashton arrived, cameras were snapping like crazy and Obama wasn’t even there yet.

Security lined the sides of the stage, and a few minutes later, out strolled Herman Van Rompuy (President of the European Council), José Manuel Barroso (President of the European Commission) and the man we were all so eager to see, Barack Obama. Three presidents stood side by side, but it’s safe to say all eyes (and cameras) were pointed at one.

There’s no point in my going into detail about what was actually said as you can find that easily peasily in the news, but it was pretty awesome to be there, I can tell you that. It was kind of weird to see in real life what is so familiar from TV.

Here are some of the things I noticed:

  • Obama brought his own glass of water with a lid (I guess you can never be too careful!)
  • The cameras went crazy every time he made a hand gesture.
  • Obama really is an amazing public speaker, and to me, he came across smooth, calm and confident.
  • Foreign journalists were listening to live translations into their own languages by translators who were there – as a languages student, I am in AWE of these people. (The interpreters, that is, not those listening.)

Once the speeches were finished, the moderator said, ‘And now we shall take two questions.’ Yes, just two. Everyone chuckled, including Obama.

The first question came from a German man who was sitting directly behind me. I suddenly felt very exposed but I SWEAR Obama looked right at me! We had a bit of a moment (in my head.)

Considering they were only allowing two questions, if I was picked I’d feel a lot of pressure to make it a good one!

As a keen newbie in this industry, I find any old press conference interesting. However, it was definitely extra exciting to experience one given by Obama and to be so close to the man himself. He’s kind of a big deal, you know.


  1. Hi,Rachel!
    It was interesting to read your own experience of Obama's conference. I'm studying journalism and really understand your feelings and impressions of such event. I wish I were there. Especially because I'm Ukrainian, live in Kiev and just do really want to hear in real what Obama was saying about our political situation.

    ...It's my first comment in your blog, but I'm reading it since summer and do really enjoy your style and topics! You know this feeling when someone's notes look just as yours sometimes :-) I plan to start my own public blog (now I have only private one) because you're inspiring me! So - thanks!

    1. Hi Kate,

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I'm definitely thinking of you and everyone else in Ukraine at this very tumultuous time.

      I really appreciate you reading and commenting and I definitely encourage you to start a public blog. I'm honoured to have inspired you and best of luck :)

    2. Thanks,Rachel! It's such a pleasure :)

  2. Oh my God, this is insane!!!!!! This is definitely something to tell the grandkids - they'll roll their eyes and be all "sure Gran, I'm suuure you had a moment with the president of the USA." I'm not surprised that it was full that early though, when you think about how people camp for a day before a film premiere for FUN and then consider that this is one of the most influential people in the world and far more important than Rob Pattinson et al. (sorry Rob) AND that getting a good story/picture could contribute greatly to someone's career... bloody hell, I'd've been there at 8am :p xxx
    La Lingua : Food, Life, Love, Travel, Friends, Italy

    1. Ha ha thanks, Lucy. I'm glad you share my excitement :) You're very right though! X


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