A Punch chat with Obama’s man in Oz Jeffrey Bleich
He is the Elvis memorabilia collecting international law expert who is now Obama’s man in Australia. New US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich spoke to The Punch’s Leo Shanahan at his residence in Canberra last week about his relationship with Barack Obama, climate change, Afghanistan and his most prized possessions.
As a talented lawyer, Clinton administration advisor and long-time friend of Barack Obama Jeffrey Bleich knew he wanted an opportunity to serve in the Obama’s White House, but initially neither Bleich nor the President could decide on a job title or what it was he would be doing.
“So I asked the President what I would be doing and he said ‘well let’s just call it Special Counsel to the President.’ So I became special counsel to the President.”
Bleich had heard of Obama when he was at Harvard, but only met the future President when the judge he was working for made the strange request that Bleich track down Obama to replace Bleich in his own associate’s job. Thankfully for Bleich Obama didn’t take up the offer.
Although keen to serve in the Obama Administration, Bleich is also father to a young family and as such wanted to wait before accepting a posting or cabinet responsibility that Obama had been pushing for.
But when the Australian offer was made he said he had no hesitation in accepting it.
“When the opportunity to serve your country comes it’s a request that you have to take pretty seriously,” he said.
While Bleich’s relationship with the President is close he was careful to underplay his influence when asked by The Punch whether he had personal discussions with the President on Australia since taking up his post.
“There are certain things in my role that you have to be careful about. One is talking too much about how you do your job and the other one is being perceived as too self-absorbed, talking too much about what you do. So that’s just not something I can discuss.”
When asked about the current nature of their relationship Bleich said confidently: “We have a good close relationship”.
It is that proximity of relationship that makes Bleich cautious about comments with any implications for domestic Australian politics. After all a comment from the ambassador is a comment from the nation you represent, and journalists and the public have especially long antennas when it comes to the United States.
When asked about the potentiality of an Abbott Government which did not believe in any ETS and had shadow ministers who did not believe in climate change Ambassador Bleich was appropriately diplomatic, but had a tinge of disdain for those holding up progress for action on climate change.
“The US’ view is that this is a tough issue and one that people are going to continue to struggle with. It affects entrenched interests and it’s not surprising that you’re going to have very robust and emotional debate about it. It’s impressive that Australia was able to lead out on this issue before others, from an America perspective we can’t judge the quality of the debate we’re just glad that you’re having it.
“You know we’re going to do what we’re going to do, we’re going forward determined that climate change is real and has to be addressed . . . we have called on all nations to join us in Copenhagen where we’re working to towards an accord that will lead to an agreement we you have specific commitments on key principles. Now other nations are going to have to decide to participate, now if enough nations do decide to participate in it the nations that don’t will have to adjust to a changed landscape,’’ Mr Bleich told The Punch.
On the question on the Copenhagen Bleich was characteristically optimistic despite the early problems of the conference.
“One thing I know from having worked at the White House is that first reports of what happened are always a little bit wrong . . . In terms of how things have started I think they’ve started well, I mean you’ve got people showing up. There’s a real call to action and robust debate and that’s what you want. If people weren’t showing up or they were showing up silently cause they have nothing to offer and don’t care about the issue but what’s happening now is that we have the world engaged.”
With the Dutch now pulling out of Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province The Punch put it to Ambassador Bleich that Australia would be called on to step up its role in the province, especially on the back off of the huge surge of 30,000 troops by the United States.
While Mr Bleich said there was “nothing off the table” on the question of increased Australian involvement in Uruzgan was still uncertain.
“Obviously to the extent that the Dutch have decided not to continue in that leadership role then all the countries in that region will have to discuss assuming that role. I can’t really give you a better answer than that . . . until it gets resolved there are a number of options and we’ll look at them all.”
Still the process of moving into the American Embassy Bleich’s most prized possessions are yet to arrive: his Elvis Presley memorabilia collection.
And what’s the most valued piece of the collection?
“It depends how you define value. Cause the really awful plaster Elvis head, a robot Elvis head that sings with life like hair. I’ve got some really sick stuff. But then I’ve got a nice signed guitar, but I like the love me tender conditioner.”
Ladies and gentlemen Bleich is in the building.
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