13 Mar 2012

Special again as Obama puts out flags for Cameron

Britain’s special relationship with America has been celebrated – then declared dead. As President Obama welcomes David Cameron with a 19 gun salute, is the transatlantic friendship back on course?

No wonder David Cameron has got excited: a ride on Air Force One, a top flight basketball game, not to mention a 19 gun salute, followed by a state dinner at the White House with any number of sports stars, actors and business leaders on the guest list.

Not a bad itinery for a three-day visit to the United States that has been given all the trappings of a proper state visit – along with a pretty strong endorsement of Anglo-American relations.

In a joint op-ed for the Washington Post, Cameron and Obama describe a “partnership of the heart, bound by… history”, declaring “put simply, we count on each other, and the world counts on our alliance”.

The endorsement of mutual solidarity could hardly be plainer: “There is hardly anything we cannot do.” Of course, it is just a few months since MPs on the foreign affairs select committee were busy declaring the death of the special relationship, advising ministers to avoid using the term.

A partnership of the heart, bound by history. Barack Obama and David Cameron

And it hasn’t always been a mutual love-fest for President Obama either. In his first few months in office he was lukewarm at best towards Britain, preferring to focus on the strategically more important Asia and Middle East.

The New America Foundation analyst Steve Clemons worked out that during his first 17 months in office, Obama mentioned Britain a mere handful of times, compared to 58 mentions for China, 46 for India, and 28 for Russia.

Nothing special

It is true that the US president noticeably struggled to connect with Gordon Brown: during his visit to Washington in 2009, there was no official dinner, no Rose Garden press conference, and a parting gift of a DVD box set which he couldn’t even play in the UK.

A senior US official told the Daily Telegraph at the time: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other hundred and ninety countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.” Even after David Cameron took over at Number 10, lingering problems like the Lockerbie bomber and the BP oil spill were still keeping the relationship pretty cool.

But this week the flags are out for Britain – literally. And it is not just a bunch of Washington poo-bahs who get to pay tribute to their new best friend. David Cameron will be the first foreign leader to travel with Obama on his official aircraft, Air Force One – with the special box of commemorative M&Ms to prove it. Not only that, but Obama’s even taking him to watch his favourite sport: college basketball.

Read more: A history of the ‘special relationship’ in pictures

Obama and Cameron (reuters)

Slice of life

The game – between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky – just so happens to be in the key battleground state of Ohio, a state Obama badly needs to win to secure his re-election in the fall.

Or as White House spokesman Jay Carney put it, “It’s an opportunity for the president and the prime minister to spend some time together outside the official trappings of Washington and the White House, and an opportunity for the president to show the prime minister a slice of American life.”

The prime minister appreciates basketball. Downing Street spokeswoman

So off to Dayton with the president – or as sports pundits prefer to call him, America’s basketball fan-in-chief. He will no doubt be sharing with David Cameron his key picks for the NCAA tournament bracket, or telling how the Western Kentucky coach managed such a stellar turnaround for his team this year.

As for Cameron, his spokeswoman claimed this morning that “The prime minister appreciates basketball”, while the British ambassador Peter Westacott revealed that he was “busy briefing himself” on that all important tournament selection, March Madness. Sure.

We might even find out how well briefed he is later tonight, when CBS sportscaster Clark Kellogg interviews both leaders at half-time on TruTV, which is airing the game. Obama is an old hand with Mr Kellogg – even playing a few hoops with him at the White House. David Cameron must be hoping he is not floored by any tricky sporting questions.

But it is his conservative credentials, rather than his knowledge of sporting minutiae, that have got him a seat in the bleachers. The idea of a Tory British prime minister as electoral asset for Obama is an unlikely one, but it has certainly got the Republicans annoyed.

Going through hoops

According to RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, Obama ought to have better things to do with his time than drag a foreign leader to watch some sports. “Many Americans struggling to find jobs, dealing with soaring gas prices, or concerned with our rising deficit and debt would probably like the president to spend at least as much time dealing with those issues.”

And yes, Cameron’s visit is not all hoops and dreams. There are some pretty tricky subjects to tackle, from Afghanistan and Iranian nukes to, er, the future of the world economy. In the midst of such turmoil, it is better to stand together than apart.

So today, as Washington prepares a grand welcome for the British prime minister, the special relationship is very much alive. And it is not just special, either: in the words of both leaders, it’s a “unique and essential asset”. They must be hoping for slam dunks, all round.

Felicity Spector writes about US politcs for Channel 4 News