Here are a few telling symptoms of Obamamania: shiny eyes; raised pulse rate; terminal hyperbole; an urge to trample others to gain physical proximity to the President of the United States, and to do so despite phalanxes of sharp-shooters braced to liquidate anyone who might pose a threat to him. During the Obamas’ state visit to the U.K., Britons—or at least the throngs that POTUS surveyed from behind the tinted windows of his armored car or the guests he encountered at exclusive gatherings at Buckingham Palace, in Westminster or at the U.S. ambassador’s palatial pad in Regent’s Park—succumbed en masse to Obamamania. Even Britain’s notoriously abrasive media showed signs of contagion, united in admiration for the First Lady, if not always for her sartorial choices, and deploying huge teams to broadcast minute-by-minute reports from a tent city outside the Palace, just as they had done during the recent royal nuptials. (A puzzled member of the public strayed into the BBC’s tent to ask, in all seriousness, “have you been here since the wedding?”)
Obama, in return, devoted time and rhetoric to assuring Britons that his passion for their nation and devotion to the transatlantic alliance burned bright. The relationship, he averred, not once but many times, was both “special” and “essential.”
Here’s another feature of Obamamania: it is liable to fizzle as soon as its object has departed. In the heady afterglow of the President’s May 25 speech at Westminster Hall, a producer at Sky News booked me to appear on the next morning’s show to assess the visit and cast a glance at Obama’s aspirations for the G-8 summit in Deauville, the penultimate destination of a six-day European tour that started in Ireland on May 23 and is scheduled to end in Poland. But as dawn broke and Obama embarked for France, the producer emailed again. Would I mind talking about POTUS and Cheryl Cole? (For the benefit of readers unacquainted with Cole—and that means most readers outside the U.K.—Cole is a pop singer-cum-model-cum-TV talent show competitor-turned-judge hired and then reportedly fired from the panel of The X-Factor.) By the time I sat down in Sky’s Westminster studio, Obama had been dropped from the agenda, yesterday’s man supplanted by the tribulations of a national sweetheart. How quickly they forget.
This fickle display doesn’t mean the presidential visit was a failure or the Obamian charm offensive wasted. On the contrary (and as I would have told Sky News viewers), all the key players emerged with their reputations burnished. And something else got a boost too: the fabled special relationship.
The Queen benefited least—but that’s only because her place in public affections is already secure and her whole family is enjoying the reflected glory of William and Kate’s wedding. Kate’s status as a fashion icon was further enhanced by her meeting with the Obamas when she was widely declared the winner in a fashion contest with FLOTUS.
The President gained on several counts. Obamamania may have died down but the frenzy masked a growing admiration for his political skills among the ranks of what marketing experts like to call “opinion formers”—key figures in British public life and the media. Many had marked Obama down as a one-term wonder, whose chief legacy would be to have shown that a non-white American could make it to the White House. A reassessment already taking place in the aftermath of the bin Laden killing and amid GOP disarray was given fresh impetus by Obama’s London appearances, and especially his turn on a podium, which, as he remarked, had last been used by “the Pope, Her Majesty the Queen and Nelson Mandela, which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke.”
I agree with Tony Karon’s assessment of Obama’s London speech: though funny in places and massively ambitious in scope, embedding the Obama doctrine in historical context, reasserting the continued relevance of the West and its contribution to the success of the East, as well as reclaiming a lead on a host of foreign policy issues, it didn’t reach the very high bar set not least by Obama’s own canon. The Financial Times concurred (the speech “failed to raise the roof”) but the majority of reviews were ecstatic. “Liberated from the tight political constraints on his domestic speeches, [Obama] invited his audience to join him in a leap of faith in the power of shared ideals,” enthused Giles Whittell in The Times. “Judging by the prolonged ovations that followed him down the hall’s long aisle afterwards, most took the leap.” It was, Whittell continued, “intended as nothing less than a latter-day Gettysburg Address.”
If some Britons now spot in Obama a figure potentially as inspirational as Abraham Lincoln, he chose to compare himself to another U.S. President in an article authored jointly with the British Prime Minister David Cameron and published in The Times on May 24, the first full day of the state visit. The leaders wrote:
Both of us came of age during the 1980s. Like so many others, we recall a turbulent decade that began with armies confronting each other across a divided Europe and ended with the Berlin Wall coming down, millions freed from the shackles of communism and human dignity extended across the continent.
The Cold War reached this conclusion because of the actions of many brave individuals and many strong nations, but we saw how the bond between our two countries—and our two leaders at the time—provided such a vital catalyst for change.
That nostalgic evocation of the special relationship, not just between the U.S. and the U.K. but between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, reveals one of the key aims of Obama’s London sojourn—and its biggest beneficiary. Both Obama and Cameron were keen to reassert the strength of the relationship while cleansing the bond of its associations with the Iraq War and Tony Blair’s fealty to George W. Both see in the Arab Spring an opportunity to tear down walls.
And it was Cameron, now cast as Thatcher to Obama’s Reagan, who seized the greatest advantage from the state visit: a higher, better profile in the U.S. and kudos in Europe and six initiatives for closer anglo-American co-operation, most importantly a Joint Strategy Board “to develop a co-ordinated approach to long-term challenges in the global economic and security environment.”
Just over a year ago, Cameron stood in the garden of 10 Downing Street and plighted his troth to the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, a shotgun marriage forced by his failure to lead the Conservatives to outright victory in parliamentary elections. The coalition has given shelter to Cameron; voters have vented anger on Clegg and his party for enabling Cameron to implement a savage program of deficit-cutting. On May 25, machine-gun-toting police kept guard as Cameron stood in the garden of another government building, Lancaster House, to celebrate the strength of an alliance with Obama that he hopes will also provide a shield against critics of his economic policy. “When I look across now at what the U.S. and U.K. are contemplating for the future, it’s actually a relatively similar program in terms of trying to get on top of our deficits and making sure that debt is falling as a proportion of GDP,” said Cameron.
Obama didn’t respond with a ringing endorsement of Cameronomics—indeed, he praised the “concerted effort” during the banking crisis by the U.S. and the U.K., at that time led by Labour’s Gordon Brown, that helped in “yanking the world out of recession.” But he went on to concede that despite a different “sequencing and pace” in deficit reduction, he and Cameron were aiming for the same outcome and that governments “must live within their means.”
If that fell short of the “perfect alignment” of the pair’s policy and ideals that Downing Street had briefed ahead of the trip, it showed that Obama cared enough about his junior partner™ to provide a helpful turn of phrase on a thorny subject, a trick POTUS repeated in careful answers on other areas of possible disagreement, such as Libya and Afghanistan. And if images speak louder than words, then the President positively bellowed that Cameron is a man whose company he finds congenial, in a series of photo opportunities, on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street with their wives or high-fiving each other during a game of table tennis at a school.
There will be no high fives at the G-8; the special relationship—the special and essential relationship—looks remarkably like some other relationships on display. But the past few days have been good for both Obama and Cameron, and you can’t ask more of a relationship than that.