Will David Cameron hit it off with Obama more than Brown did?

The chilly rapport between Obama and David Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, is a thing of the past. The weeks ahead will tell if the 'special relationship' between the US and UK still has life.

Christopher Furlong/AP
New British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg hold their first joint press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street in London, Wednesday.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama, right, and his Afghanistan counterpart Hamid Karzai, left, during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington Wednesday.

David Cameron hardly had time to figure out the phone system at 10 Downing Street Tuesday when a long-distance call was coming in – from Barack Obama in Washington.

“As I told the prime minister, the United States has no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom, and I reiterated my deep and personal commitment to the special relationship between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a statement.

On Wednesday, responding to a question at a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama said he found Mr. Cameron to be "a smart, dedicated, effective leader." In their Tuesday conversation, "we both reaffirmed the extraordinary special relationship between the US and Great Britain,” Obama added. “It's not going to go away."

So there it was – the “special relationship.” Winston Churchill first used the term to describe a bond based on historical ties and like values.

Now that the chilly rapport between Obama and Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, is a thing of the past, the weeks ahead will tell if indeed the “special relationship” that spans decades still has life in it.

Obama invited Cameron and his wife, Samantha, to stop by the White House sometime over the summer, and the president noted that he will have a chance to sit down with the new prime minister at the G-8/G-20 meetings in Canada in June.

The two leaders first met in London in 2008, when Cameron was the Tory leader and Obama was a Democratic presidential candidate.

Yet despite the president’s use of the phrase that has come to define US-UK ties, there are signs on both sides of the Atlantic that the term may have worn out its usefulness.

Obama has made it clear that he sees America’s interests shifting west to Asia – he has called himself the “first Pacific president” – and he has not bothered to forge close ties with any European leaders. Cameron will make a considerable effort to improve the tattered ties left in the wake of the Obama-Brown disconnect, some UK experts say, but the new prime minister has also asserted his wariness of any relationship that puts Britain in a subordinate role.

Commenting at one point during the Iraq war on then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s close relationship with President Bush, Cameron said that Britain had “lost the art” of balancing partnership and a crucial influence in the relationship.

And then there is Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader whom Cameron accepted as his deputy prime minister in order to form a coalition government. Mr. Clegg – who, like Cameron, is in his early 40s and is therefore unconnected personally to the World War II era that bonded the two countries – has forcefully argued for a more European and less Atlanticist focus to British foreign policy.

According to some transatlantic analysts, Obama and Cameron may not hit it off because of political differences. Cameron, as a Conservative, will look to shrink government, while Obama, being a liberal (in the American sense of the word) Democrat, has favored expansions of government and regulation (the major health-care overhaul being an example).

On the other hand, both men have exhibited a cool and elitist air that may indicate a closer philosophical bond than Obama had with Brown, who seemed to be from a different era than that of Obama and Cameron.

For one thing, it seems that the two leaders share a fear of the handlers and the overly organized and segmented appointment schedule that could deny today’s leaders the chance to think and lead.

In their 2008 London conversation, Cameron complained about “these guys [who] chalk your diary up,” and Obama responded, “Right, in 15-minute increments.” Then Obama bemoaned the tendency to “lose the big picture,” and Cameron added, “and that is what politics is about – the judgment you bring to make decisions.”


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