WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard couldn't say enough about the close friendship between their two countries during Gillard's first White House visit Monday. But on one issue there was no common ground: Vegemite.
Obama winced at the mere mention of the Australian food paste when a student asked about it during a classroom visit the two leaders conducted. "It's horrible!" the president declared.
Gillard displayed some diplomacy befitting a world leader on her first Washington tour, calling the issue "a little bit of a division between the president and I. I love Vegemite."
Obama and Gillard began with a more traditional approach on Monday. They held a private meeting and then a relatively news-free appearance before reporters in the Oval Office, proclaiming cooperation on the war in Afghanistan, trade and security. But then the president took the prime minister back to school.
The two took a quick road trip to Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., to mix it up with an 11th grade history class. Obama had used the school as the site of a national address on education, and Gillard is Australia's former education minister and was interested in taking a look at U.S. education methods.
Plus, the venture had a political purpose: Keeping Obama on his month-long message of education even as world events tug away at his time.
What followed were some amusing, and at times instructive, exchanges among Obama, Gillard and the 20 or so history students they confronted.
Gillard administered what she called a "pop quiz" to the students with questions ranging from the population of Australia – one student pretty much nailed it at 21 million – to the rules for "Australian rules football," the confusing version of football played in Australia.
"It's hard to understand," was one student's observation about the sport.
That led Obama to divulge that Gillard had brought him an Australian football and had even kicked it around the Oval Office, and "almost broke a bust of Lincoln."
Turned out the president was just kidding about that one.
When Obama and Gillard invited questions for the prime minister, a hand shot up.
"My family and I have been wondering this for a little while. What is Vegemite?" a student earnestly inquired, provoking the leaders' disagreement on that high-stakes issue.
There followed questions about recent flooding in Australia, the differences between the education systems in Australia and the U.S. – turns out there are a lot more schools in the U.S., but both countries share similar goals toward boosting underperforming schools – and whether basketball is played in Australia.
It is. Not only that, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was along on the tour, actually played there and claimed to have been the leading scorer for four years.
Obama had been scheduled to visit Australia last year, but the trip was twice canceled because of domestic priorities. In response to a question from an Australian reporter Obama said he hoped to travel to Australia soon, but he didn't give a specific timetable.
As reporters were ushered out of the classroom, the teacher, Collette Fraley, raised a question that could have provoked an interesting response. She asked Obama and Gillard to talk about what it was like for both of them to be "firsts" – Obama as America's first black president, and Gillard as the first woman prime minister of Australia.
Obama said he'd wait to answer until reporters were cleared from the room, leaving his response unknown.