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In Confidence-Building Effort, Obama Trusts, Medvedev Empathizes

July 6, 2009: President Obama and President Medvedev talk before they signed a preliminary agreement to reduce the world's two largest nuclear stockpiles (AP Photo).

Dmitry Medvedev is "straightforward, professional" and trustworthy, President Obama said Monday, as he and the Russian president engaged in confidence-building measures aimed at "resetting" the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

"Throughout our interactions I've found him to be straightforward, professional. He is clear about the interests of the Russian people, but he's also interested in finding out what the interests of the United States are," Obama said in Moscow, while sharing a stage with Medvedev at their first joint news conference.

Asked by a reporter whether he has full trust in Medvedev, widely perceived to be a puppet for his predecessor, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Obama said he and Medvedev "have found, I think, an ability to work together extremely effectively."

For his part, Medvedev demonstrated that he and Obama share more than just a title. Just as Obama said he seeks judiciary nominees with the empathy that will enable them to adjudicate more fairly, Medvedev said personal relationships can improve attitudes and build trust.

"Personal relationships are very important, especially when you speak about the building of inter-state relationships. The best relationship between the countries are the more empathy people have towards each other in different countries," Medvedev said through a translator.

"A lot depends on our relationship and success in delivering on all those expectations on different fronts," he continued. "A lot depends on our efforts, bearing in mind that our people have always had sympathy towards -- empathy towards each other."

This week's Moscow summit is being characterized by the Obama administration as a chance to usher in a new era of friendship after the damage it says was done during the Bush administration.

Monday's press conference, however, conjured memories of the early respect that devolved into recriminations between former Presidents George W. Bush and Putin. In 2001, Bush and Putin appeared the best of friends when Bush hosted the Russian president at Camp David.

"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue," Bush said. "I was able to get a sense of his soul."

However, that relationship foundered over disputes about missile defense, the war in Iraq, support for Iran and most recently Russia's attack on Georgia, its neighbor and U.S. ally.

Obama and Medvedev appeared headed down a different path. 

During this trip, Obama and Medvedev offered up eight agreements -- dealing with policies from health and agriculture to nuclear arms reduction and the fight in Afghanistan -- to demonstrate a new era of cooperation. 

Obama said he's appreciative of the manner in which the Russian president has dealt with him and the cooperation between their respective teams.

"I trust President Medvedev to not only listen and to negotiate constructively, but also to follow -- follow through on the agreements that are contained here today," he said.

But the U.S. president is scheduled to meet Tuesday for breakfast with Putin even though his counterpart, Medvedev, is nominally of higher authority. In a parliamentary democracy like Russia's the prime minister is technically the head of government while the president is the head of state.

Obama said he wanted to meet with Putin as well as other influential leaders in Russia so that he can get "a full picture" of the needs and concerns of the Russian people. When asked, he did not address whether Medvedev is the true leader of that country.

"My strong impression is that President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin are working very effectively together. And our interest is dealing with the Russian government as a whole in order to achieve the improved bilateral relationship that I think can be accomplished," Obama said.

Obama is working off a script that he has successfully read before, appealing directly to the Russian people with a speech at the New Economic School. Obama previously has spoken to audiences in Germany and Cairo.

In covering his bases, he may turn around a July 2 poll of Russians taken by the University of Maryland's WorldPublicOpinion.org that found 49 percent of Russians think the U.S. plays a negative role in the world. Only 23 percent said they have confidence in Obama to do the right thing in international affairs.