When president looks presidential

Obama mingled with royalty and celebrities on the first day of his visit to the UK, but the real business of setting the world agenda begins now.

It always amazes me how much life is disrupted for any city that hosts a sitting US president. In the times I have been part of the TV pool – the press that follows the president – I have to say you can’t really see the disruptions. The streets, people and signs pass in a hurried blur. From the outside it is painfully clear the effect it has.

In Dublin, Obama’s visit caused most bridges to be closed, the trams were running only occasionally and it seemed the whole of the city had set out on foot on a very blustery day.

What was most remarkable though was that, of the many Dubliners I spoke to, not one complained. All expressed hope that it would help lift the country out of what seems to be a fog of malaise that they say settled over the landscape during the economic crisis.

In London, the disruptions haven’t seemed quite as severe. Again, all of the people I spoke with seemed happy that the president was paying a visit, even if they didn’t all agree with his policies. I have to say the cab drivers in London could put any DC pundit to shame. 

If you look at the intense security – the decked out plane and gigantic armour-plated limo – it is often easy to forget that the president is, behind it all, a regular person.

As I watched him at the state dinner, smiling constantly while sitting next to the Queen of England, I wonder if this is one of those moments when he realises what an amazing job he fought for and won.

It’s just as likely that those moments of realisation are that much stronger when he’s sitting in the situation room – deciding on drone strikes, secret SEAL missions, and war strategies.

After a very tough few months, the first two days of this trip have felt more like a working vacation for the president. It has been all about the president looking presidential, and trying to improve relations with ceremony, not substance. 

Outside of Buckingham Palace on Tuesday night, there was a small protest – a visual example of what awaits the business part of this trip that begins on Wednesday.

In the crowd of a few hundred, there were protesters saying he wasn’t doing enough in Syria or Bahrain, complaints he shouldn’t be doing anything in  Libya and Afghanistan.  Then there was the sign “Obamanation,” which I assumed to be a clever way of saying “abomination,” but I have no idea what they were protesting.  

Travelling with the president, the media often gets background briefings previewing their agenda. There are several issues that are expected to dominate his discussions in the UK and in France at the G8.

Obama is expected to be pressed by the European allies for a stronger US military presence in Libya.

The president’s aides are quick to say the US strategy was to begin the fight, but then take on a supporting role. It is the supporting role they are quick to highlight, things such as refuelling missions and intelligence gathering.

What they haven’t talked about is the current involvement of US fighters and armed US drones that are constantly patrolling the skies over Libya.

There are political and legal reasons for their selective focus. Technically, under the War Powers Act, the president can send the US military into action, but only for 60 days without Congressional approval which he didn’t ask for.

There are some lawyers who believe that under the law he has to have the approval of Congress by day 61. The president doesn’t have that in Libya, but his staff says because the Senate is considering a resolution, that’s enough for the time being. I wonder what Obama, the constitutional lawyer, would say about that? 

Regardless of domestic concerns, the administration is indicating it has gone as far as it is willing to go in Libya. 

The other big agenda item for the president is trying to convince the allies to not support the Palestinians if they ask the United Nations to recognise them as a sovereign state at the General Assembly this fall.

The president’s top aides admit that was much of the reason why he is pushing for renewed peace talks and why he brought up the idea of the pre-1967 borders with land swaps. Their hope is if talks resume, they can say to the allies – “look, there is a process in place, give it time.”

The president will also go looking for financial support for the governments of Tunisia and Egypt.

In his speech last week, the president talked about $2 billion in debt relief and loan guarantees.

Notice, those two programmes would likely not require the US to put up any actual money. There is a good reason for that. The administration could face a backlash from Congress, facing a debt crisis of its own. US politicians know that, when asked by pollsters, the one thing almost all voters say they want cut is foreign aid.  

On Tuesday night, the toasts and the tiaras took up his evening. The president, the kid from Hawaii, the community organiser from Chicago, mingled with celebrities and royalty.

On Wednesday, the president of the United States goes out to set the world agenda. We’ll see if still can.

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