By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to the White House on Tuesday, using the pomp of the formal state visit to highlight the link between the sluggish European economy and populist discontent in the continent.
The spotlight comes at an opportune time for Renzi, who seeks a boost ahead of a constitutional referendum on Dec. 4 that could determine his political future.
But even Renzi admitted that the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8 loomed larger.
"I have a feeling, and I think that rightly so, our American friends are a little more interested in November 8 than in the Italian vote on constitutional reform, and so are we, might I add," Renzi said, drawing laughter from the Rose Garden press conference.
Obama slammed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for "whining" that the U.S. election was "rigged."
He praised Renzi's proposed economic reforms and said he supported the attempt to modernize political institutions at the referendum because it would help accelerate economic changes.
"I do believe that there is a connection between stagnation and some of the less constructive, populist impulses that have been rising up," Obama said, saying more jobs needed to be created for Europe's younger generation.
This is the second time this year Obama has weighed in on domestic political battles facing his European allies. In April, he visited London in support of former Prime Minister David Cameron's unsuccessful efforts to persuade Britain to vote to remain in the European Union. On Tuesday he said he expected Renzi to stay in office for some time.
"As you fight for the cause of reform, know that we stand with you. I believe that Italy and the world will continue to benefit from your leadership for many years to come," Obama said during a toast at the state dinner.
The leaders discussed the fight against Islamic State and the battle to take the Iraqi city of Mosul from the militant group, something Obama called a "key milestone."
Obama insisted the U.S.-led coalition had an extensive strategy to deal with what could be "heart-breaking" humanitarian consequences of the fight.
The state dinner was the last scheduled for Obama before he leaves office in January. Notable guests included former racing driver Mario Andretti, designer Giorgio Armani, actor Roberto Benigni and celebrity chef Mario Batali, who helped plan and cook the meal.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason, Doina Chiacu and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Alistair Bell and Alan Crosby)