Obama in the U.K.: Pomp and Circumstance, but What Does It Mean?

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Not everyone welcomes the visit by the leader of the free world to London. There was the smartly dressed woman who found herself prevented from crossing Whitehall. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she said. “Do I look like a terrorist?”

On the opposite side of the road, some 30 demonstrators protested for a different reason. At nearby Downing Street, we strained to make out what the reason might be. “Obamamania”? This seemed an unlikely refrain. After POTUS and David Cameron left the prime ministerial residence on a secret mission — it turned out they were visiting a South London school — I made my way close enough to read a placard (“The World Has Been Divided Into Two Camps: Islam and Disbelief”) and discern the chant: “Obama murderer.”

If the U.S. President can hear anything at all after the 41-gun salute that greeted his arrival at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday morning, applause and cheers will have dominated his soundscape. There were even a few screams of delight as a car left the royal residence, carrying William and Kate after their meeting with Obama and the First Lady. But the newlyweds were not the only rock stars in town. “I saw him! I saw him! I saw him! He is beautiful!” said a German tourist with a sigh. William? (Just checking.) No, Barack.

Obama may have already had his fill of the brand of polite chitchat that even clever people resort to when lenses and microphones are locked onto their movements. If so, he’d better brace himself for more. Although “serious” meetings are scheduled, nobody expects substantive business to get done in the time allocated to such untelegenic activities. So what’s the point of the meetings? Indeed, what is the point of expensive, inconvenient enterprises that gridlock London traffic and prevent nice ladies from crossing roads at junctures of their choosing?

Well, there’s the showcase element. The Obamas are representing the U.S. to Britain and the wider world. The Queen and her majesty’s government are doing their best to display the U.K. to its best advantage in return. Each choreographed moment has been plotted for its symbolic force, for audiences at home and abroad and, in the case of the politicians concerned, for their voters and farther-flung constituencies. For Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and opposition leader Ed Miliband, it matters that they are each seen having quality face time with the President. (Miliband enjoyed a “warm and friendly” 40-minute session with POTUS on Tuesday night; Clegg is expected to see the President with Cameron later.)

Any stirrings of friendship — or even the beginning of a decent working relationship — that arise from such encounters are a distinct bonus. Helpful relationships are also being forged out of sight, between White House staffers and Westminster aides.

And on Wednesday Obama will deliver yet another big speech in a week of big speeches, from a podium used only three times before by foreign guests: de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and the Pope. It’s a setting guaranteed to invest his words with a sense of history in the making. Perhaps it will live up to that expectation; if not, another platform awaits, at the G-8 in Deauville, France. And then another in Poland (ash cloud permitting). Each venue will have its own resonance and carry its own meaning. One measure of a successful visit, for state guests and their hosts, is whether these resonances and meanings can be harnessed to create a new and positive set of resonances and meanings. On that measure, so far so good.