The [2009 Copenhagen climate change] summit had developed into another grudge match between the developed and developing worlds. China, India, and Brazil were refusing to sign an agreement that would commit them to even incremental steps to curb emissions. Diplomats from 193 countries wandered the bright hallways of the Bella Center in a state of fretful energy.
With failure looming, [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton telephoned [President] Obama and urged him to fly to Copenhagen to try to break the deadlock. His political advisers were opposed, not wanting to pull the boss away from a crowded domestic agenda for a diplomatic caper that looked as if it was going to end badly. Obama, though, had promised, like Clinton, to get serious about climate change. He trusted her diagnosis: that only the American President could broker a compromise. So on the evening of December 3, 2009, he ordered Air Force One fueled up for a flight to Denmark.
Twenty-four hours later, he was being briefed by an exasperated Clinton inside a small coffee bar in a shopping mall adjacent to the conference center that had been closed for the meeting. When it became clear that the Chinese delegation was trying to water down any agreement, holing up in a conference room with windows taped over to conceal their dealings from the Americans, Obama and Clinton decided to take matters into their own hands. They set off to confront the Chinese in person, fast-walking down a hallway and up a flight of stairs, panicked aides in chase, before they ran into a Chinese official in the doorway, waving his arms and shouting, “Not ready yet.”
Confusion swirled as Clinton and Obama tried to find out who was in the room with the Chinese. An advance person told them it was the Indians, the Brazilians, and the South Africans. Now Clinton was mad: The Indians had told American officials they had already left for the airport. A major developing country was lying to avoid dealing with the United States on climate change? She and Obama looked at each other in disbelief. “C’mon, let’s just do this,” he said to Clinton. She moved first, ducking under the outstretched arm of a Chinese security guard and barging into the room, which drew a collective gasp from the leaders huddled around a conference table. Obama was right behind her. “Hi, everybody!” he bellowed, like a dad coming home early to find his teenage kids throwing a keg party in the backyard. “Mr. Prime Minister, are you ready to see me now?” he said, turning to face the nonplussed Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who was anything but.
This story about President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton teaming up like they were in a buddy-cop movie and crashing a meeting at the Copenhagen climate change summit is one of my favorite anecdotes from the Obama Administration.