Stardust Across the Pond

Can Obama's magic rub off on David Cameron?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

LONDON — Opinion polls conducted around the world in the weeks before the U.S. presidential election reported just the kind of result you’d expect from such surveys: Except in Pakistan (not big fans of drones, them), most people overseas desperately desired Barack Obama’s reelection and deplored the prospect of a President Mitt Romney. The Republican brand remains tainted by its unavoidable association with George W. Bush’s failed presidency while, overseas at least, Obama retains some of the hope and glamour with which he swept into the White House four years ago.

Few capitals welcomed Obama’s victory more keenly than London. David Cameron may lead a Conservative Party that has traditionally seen the Republican Party as its cousin, but the British prime minister made little effort to hide the fact he was supporting Obama’s reelection. The official Downing Street Twitter feed was quick off the mark: "Warm congratulations to my friend @BarackObama. Look forward to continuing to work together." Cameron, who was on a trade mission to Gulf states while Americans were voting, told reporters traveling with him: "I am delighted with the result." Just in case the message had been missed, Cameron’s press team released photographs of the prime minister telephoning the newly reelected president on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

So these are changed times. The Republican Party is now so toxic that even British Conservatives are wary of being seen to be too closely associated with their erstwhile transatlantic cousins. Pro-Republican voices in Westminster are now, at least at senior levels, in a minority. It did not help that Romney botched his trip to London this summer. Even without that, however, the known unknowns of a second Obama term were seen as preferable to the unknown unknowns that would have accompanied Romney on his journey to Washington.

Once not so long ago, this would have been considered inconceivable. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought themselves kindred spirits whose joint mission was, in part, to revive their respective countries’ morale at home while projecting strength overseas. And Thatcher plainly preferred Reagan’s company to that of many of her own Conservative colleagues.

Their successors proved almost as close. President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister John Major were pulled close by the need to respond to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait — so close, in fact, that Bush’s reelection campaign felt able to ask the Conservatives whether they had any dirt on Bill Clinton, dating from his time as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. The Tories were happy to look on Bush’s behalf but found nothing and succeeded only in ensuring Major and Clinton had a cool relationship when the Comeback Kid from Hope (Arkansas) won the White House in 1992.

Opposites have, of course, attracted before in this old so-called "special relationship." George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were not obvious soul mates, but regardless of their differences on domestic politics, their responses to the post-9/11 world were instinctive and, in many respects, close to identical. Indeed, Blair came to admire Bush’s clarity and ability to stick to a decision. It contrasted with his experience with Bill Clinton — even though, in many policy respects, Clinton and Blair were comrades who viewed political and policy problems in much the same manner. While Bush and Blair were close on foreign-policy matters, it was the Tories who learned from Bush’s "compassionate conservatism" agenda, which helped influence Cameron’s own modernization project. That was then, however, before Bush’s reputation became so poisonous.

So the Cameron-Obama relationship is unusual. It is hard to recall a transatlantic bromance like it. Not since World War II has a Conservative prime minister lavished such praise and attention on a Democratic president.

Not that it has all been one-way traffic. Obama hosted Cameron this March and, amid the usual Washington hoopla, took Cameron on Air Force One to Ohio, where the pair attended an NCAA basketball tournament game between Mississippi Valley State University and Western Kentucky University. It made for nice photographs on either side of the Atlantic.

If that pleased the image guys in each leader’s camp, then the praise showered upon Obama by Cameron was, even by the standards of White House dinners, on the effusive side of gushing. Obama, Cameron said, "has pressed the reset button on the moral authority of the entire free world." Cameron praised Obama’s "enormous courage," his "wisdom," and his "strength." According to Cameron, "the president says what he will do and he sticks to it." Although some commentators on the Tory right warned that the prime minister’s enthusiasm for Obama was a mistake, this proved a minority opinion.

Large parts of the U.S.-Britain relationship — notably in defense and intelligence matters — hardly depend upon the identities of the president and prime minister, respectively. Nevertheless, it helps if there can be some kind of magical chemistry between them. It is clear that Obama, for instance, enjoys a better, more relaxed relationship with Cameron than he did with Gordon Brown.

As far as Downing Street is concerned, the Obama brand is hip, urban, modern — the opposite of the Tories’ fusty, aristocratic, rural image. Cameron, whose first task as leader of the party was to modernize its image, sees a close relationship with Obama as part of that still-incomplete process. If Romney had prevailed on Nov. 6, the Tory right would have argued that British Conservatives should ape their American cousins and move sharply to the right. Cameron, head of an already unpopular coalition government, could do without that kind of pressure from within his own party.

More than anything, however, senior Conservatives interpret Obama’s victory as a sign that even in the midst of a sluggish economic recovery and amid much grumbling and discontent, incumbents can still prevail. There is hope!

Obama’s victory means other presidents and prime ministers in Europe can dare to hope that incumbency does not mean the end of one’s political career. Obama won despite Americans’ feeling less than optimistic and with an unemployment rate nudging 8 percent. Here again, Obama offers a measure of hope to his counterparts elsewhere.

It may be that this is a false hope. Few European politicians have Obama’s political gifts or command any comparable sense of loyalty. No surprise, then, that since the Great Meltdown on Wall Street four years ago, no fewer than 17 governments across Europe have been defeated. With a trend like that you clutch any scrap of hope you can get.

In any case, Cameron may benefit from Obama’s second term in more practical terms. In the first place, Obama won reelection by successfully persuading many voters that he needed a second term to finish cleaning up the mess he inherited from his hapless predecessor. We can expect Cameron to make a similar case at the next British election.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, arguments in Washington will soon move in ways helpful to the British prime minister. It is already clear that the long-term public debt and the need to balance the budget will, with entitlement reform, be a large part of Obama’s second term. If some grand bargain is reached marrying spending cuts with some tax increases, there will be much rejoicing in London too.

Why so? Because the British media’s fascination with American politics ensures that arguments in Washington aren’t just theater in Britain but help inform and influence Britain’s own domestic policy arguments. Obama and Cameron may have pursued contrasting approaches until now (the one favoring "stimulus," the other "austerity"), but their approaches are soon likely to converge. Cameron has raised taxes and cut spending and paid a political price for doing so. Although the American and British situations are different and parallels should not be drawn too firmly, it remains the case that if Washington embraces even modest spending restraints, Cameron will try to use this to his own advantage. The symbolism may matter more than the actual degree of belt-tightening. If so, it will not hurt Cameron to be able to say, "And by the way, this is what the Obama administration is doing too…"

All this being the case, you can begin to see why the Obama stardust retains its power overseas and why even British Tories were keen to see him reelected. That, of course, is also a commentary upon and reflection of how far outside the international conservative mainstream the Republican Party has drifted. The Cameron-Obama romance may seem an unusual alliance, but it has proved useful to both men — and outside America, the Obama aura continues to work its magic. No wonder the British prime minister didn’t bother to hide his pleasure when America granted Barack Obama four more years.

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