The Not-So-Special Relationship: Why Obama Snubbed Gordon Brown
Brown clearly needed Obama more than Obama needed him. Several commentators suggested that Brown was hoping some of Obama's "stardust" would rub off on him, although Rachel Sylvester of the Times put it rather more bluntly: "Like the bleeding woman healed by Jesus, so the man haemorrhaging political support hopes to be saved by this modern Messiah." Obama, by contrast, appeared to be thinking: "Why are we here? What's in this for me?"
And Brown tried, he really did. In addition to that pen holder, there was the announcement of an honorary knighthood for Teddy Kennedy (the citation reads "For services to bartending and underwater search and rescue"). The announcement may have gone down badly in Britain, given Teddy's past support for Irish Republican terrorists who murdered hundreds of British soldiers and innocent men, women, and children, but it was calculated to win friends and influence people in Washington.
Obama did indeed give Brown the opportunity to bask in presidential glory. The problem is that Brown also fell victim to what future political historians will call the "McCain effect." Sitting beside the tall, young, vigorous Obama, Brown looked like a leader from a bygone age: old, tired, and physically unattractive; the last of the great European political dinosaurs.
Politics shouldn't be a beauty contest, but at the highest levels, unfortunately, that's what it has become. If it were otherwise, Obama would not now occupy the White House. And so we got the meeting between the prime minister with no charisma and the president with charisma to spare but little else in the way of leadership qualities. It was the meeting between Hope'n'Change and Doom'n'Gloom.
It seemed as if the administration knew how desperate Brown was to be the first European leader to meet with the president and just wanted to get it over with. A half-hour meeting, a working lunch, and a scaled-back media event -- this was the diplomatic equivalent of the bum's rush. It was all a far cry from the bonhomie and mutual admiration of the Blair-Bush days. And the British press loved it, somehow contriving to profess indignation at the treatment of Brown, while at the same time reveling in his humiliation.
Perhaps Obama resents Brown constantly reminding anyone who'll listen that the financial crisis started in the U.S., by way of absolving himself of blame. The last thing Obama wants is a serious discussion about the causes of the crisis, because such a discussion would inevitably lead back to the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie and Freddie, Dodd and Frank -- and even, perhaps, to the role played by community organizers like Obama himself, who intimidated banks into making bad loans. Or maybe Obama was upset by Brown's warnings about the dangers of protectionism, just when America's unions are preparing to call in some favors from the man they helped elect.
Perhaps Obama was reluctant to buddy up to a leader so closely associated, by way of Blair, with the Bush years. Or maybe the man who wants to bring European-style socialism to American feels that Britain isn't quite "European" enough. Or perhaps he simply didn't see the point in wasting time on a leader who probably won't be around in a year or so.
Still, you'd have thought Obama could have made a bit more of an effort, given that Brown casts himself as a fellow "progressive." And then there's the small matter of Britain being America's staunchest ally in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama will likely have a little more time for Brown after he's told by France and Germany where he can stick his request for more troops.
Obama will pay a return visit to Britain for the G20 summit at the end of this month. Brown, decent chap that he is, will probably resist the temptation to deliver any snubs of his own to the president. That's a shame, because I'd give anything to see the look on Obama's face when he's presented with the DVD box set of The Complete Fawlty Towers.