Obama turns on charm to smooth ruffled British feathers

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2009 

US first lady Michelle Obama is welcomed by Britain's Queen ElizabethII, as she arrives with President Obama for an audience at Buckingham Palace in London, Wednesday April 1, 2009.(AP Photo/John Stillwell, pool)

ASSOCIATED PRESS

LONDON — With a salute, a smile and maybe just a little sucking up, President Barack Obama worked hard Wednesday to make up for any diplomatic rift he may have caused several weeks ago in the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.

"I am very pleased to be in London, especially with weather of the sort we're seeing today," Obama said during a news conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as rare sunlight shone through the windows.

"Both of us greatly value the special relationship between our nations. The United States and the United Kingdom have stood together through thick and thin, through war and peace, through hard times and prosperity, and we've always emerged stronger by standing together.

"So I'm pleased that my first meeting overseas as president is with Gordon Brown, just as I was pleased to host him in Washington shortly after taking office. And I know that we both believe that the relationship between our two countries is more than just an alliance of interests; it's a kinship of ideals and it must be constantly renewed."

Maybe that calmed troubled waters here.

Obama set off a brouhaha in the British press when he was seen as dissing Brown during the prime minister's visit to Washington last month.

Exchanging gifts as a diplomatic tradition, Brown gave Obama an ornate penholder made from the timber of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet. The Gannet was the sister ship of the HMS Resolute, the one whose wood was used to make the president's desk in the White House, given by Queen Victoria as a gift.

In return, Obama gave Brown a gift set of 25 U.S. movies on DVD.

"About as exciting as a pair of socks," the London Daily Mail cracked.

Even worse, the DVDs didn't work on British players.

"The Obama administration has already succeeded in offending America's closest ally, Great Britain," added Nile Gardiner, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research center in Washington, and a former adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"There's a certain amount of public-relations making up to do there," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center in Washington

Obama did it with gusto.

"The thing I love about Great Britain is its people, and there is just an extraordinary affinity and kinship that we have," he said. "We owe so much to England that when you come here there's that sense of familiarity, as well as difference, that makes it just a special place."

Showing solidarity, he noted that al Qaida terrorists have attacked London, as they did the United States. He saluted British troops who are serving alongside U.S. troops.

When the news conference was almost over, Obama realized he'd forgotten something.

"There's one last thing that I should mention that I love about Great Britain, and that is the queen," Obama chimed in, remembering that he was to meet Queen Elizabeth II later Wednesday at Buckingham Palace.

"I'm very much looking forward to meeting her for the first time later this evening. And as you might imagine, Michelle has been really thinking that through, because I think in the imagination of people throughout America, I think what the queen stands for and her decency and her civility, what she represents, that's very important."

Later, he gave the queen an iPod with songs and accessories, and a rare songbook signed by American composer Richard Rodgers.

One thing he wouldn't do was pick a winner in the World Cup.

"I have had enough trouble back home picking my brackets for the college basketball tournament that's taking place there, called March Madness," he said. "The last thing I'm going to do is wade into European football. That would be a mistake. I didn't get a briefing on that, but I sense that would be a mistake."

If the crowds outside were any indication, Obama needn't have worried too much about his standing.

"We were in our hotel around the corner when we heard this morning Obama was going to be here and we thought, 'Wow, it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance,' " said Jill Pearce, a well-dressed retiree from Wiltshire. She's an Obama fan, she said, because of "his honesty, his empathy." Obama is "brilliant, the complete opposite of George Bush," added her husband, Roy.

Chelsey Hames, a 21-year-old college student from London with an Obama button on her backpack, said she'd stayed up all night watching the U.S. election coverage in November and hoped to move to America after she graduated next year.

"A lot of British people find Gordon Brown pretty lame," Hames said. "He's not half as cool as Obama."

(McClatchy special correspondent Julie Sell contributed to this article from London.)

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