Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have noticed that Gordon Brown's visit to the White House yesterday was not exactly the high-profile boost that the struggling prime minister was hoping for. In a break with protocol, Obama decided to skip the traditional side-by-side photo-op in front of the two nations' flags, didn't invite Brown to Camp David as both Clinton and Bush had done for Tony Blair, and kept their Oval Office press conference brief, to the point, and not all that cordial.
Dana Milbank, Washington's poet of awkward protocol, recounts the exchange between the two leaders:
Brown kept a stiff upper lip as he sat in the Oval Office yesterday as Obama, skipping the usual words of welcome for his guest, went straight to questions from the news services. Brown didn't get to speak for six minutes, after Obama had already answered two questions. Gamely, the snubbed premier tried to speak the president's language.
"I don't think I could ever compete with you at basketball," Brown said. "Perhaps tennis."
"Tennis? I hear you've got a game," Obama replied mildly.
"Yes, we could maybe have a -- have a shot," the prime minister went on.
"We haven't tried it yet," the president said.
"I don't know," Brown said. "I think you'd be better, but there we are."
Obama smiled faintly. Brown spent much of the session with both soles planted on the floor, his palms gripping his thighs.
The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman writes that the meeting "seemed to teeter on the brink of humiliation," for the prime minister noting that Obama had squeezed him in between a visit to the department of transportation and a meeting with representatives of the Boy Scouts. Obama's press secretary had actually set the mood a few days earlier:
Only days previously, the president's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, had caused consternation among British diplomats by referring to the special relationship as a "special partnership", which sounded rather non-committal - as if America were signalling that, henceforth, it wanted to be free to date other countries as well.
The Spectator's Fraser Nelson has a hilariously nasty take as well:
Brown looked like a groupie that had just been invited on stage as he sat in the Oval Office beaming from ear to ear beside the Messiah. It was a very different outcome to that he imagined: there was no podium to speak at, no formal press conference, no toothpaste sharing, none of the formalities that have been extended to Tony Blair. Brown was on the same losers chair that the soon-to-be-ex-Japanese PM was on last month.
So why did Obama snub Brown? Alex Massie speculates that Obama "has been briefed about the British press corps and sees no reason to humour them" with an extended press conference, but I think his motives are actually a bit colder. Obama's most powerful diplomatic weapon right now is his own international popularity, and he seems to be making it clear that he won't share it with just anybody.
Obama giving the cold shoulder to Brown probably doesn't mean he has any less respect for the special relationship with Britain than any of his predecessors. More likely, and bluntly, he probably just thinks of Gordon Brown as a bit of a loser. Why roll out the red carpet for guys like Brown and Taro Aso who will likely be out of office soon anyway? Something tells me that when Dmitry Medvedev or Hu Jintao visit the White House, the Obamas will break out the good china.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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