by Kevin Meagher
The central assumption underpinning Ed Miliband’s 25 minute meeting with Barack Obama the other day is that an audience with the US President makes a British politician walk taller in the eyes of the voters.
Indeed, it sometimes works the other way too. When candidate Obama was seeking to burnish his credentials as a nascent international statesman he met with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Tony Blair. He is later said to have described, Brown as having “substance”, while Cameron was all “sizzle” but Blair was “sizzle and substance”.
But Obama himself has turned out to be more fizzle than sizzle. The 44th US president is now a busted flush. A let-down. A talker, not a do-er. Even his flagship achievement in office – state-subsidised healthcare – hit the legal buffers yesterday.
It may be recoverable, but the failure to implement Obamacare effectively is just the latest in a string of flops that have bedevilled his presidency. His famous campaign mantra of “yes we can” has been reduced to, “no we can’t”. Certainly when it comes to closing down Guantanamo Bay, making headway in the Middle East, protecting Christians from Genocide in Iraq and Syria or even, nearer to home, raising US living standards. Obama simply hasn’t delivered.
In fact, if Ed Miliband wanted to visit a world leader to learn about paying the price of promising big and delivering small, then he could have taken the Eurostar to Paris and met with Francois Hollande and saved himself the air fare to Washington.
The most maddening aspect about Obama – a habitué of the golf course these days – is that he is content to just coast along, a second term bed-blocker. Like his infamous drones, he seems to operate on auto-pilot, presiding over an unprecedented retrenchment in US influence around the globe and a sluggish economy at home. (Indeed, a brutal editorial in this week’s Economist describes him as the least business-friendly president in decades).
His personal approval poll rating, at just 43 per cent, is ten points lower than the post-war average for US presidents. At exactly the same stage of their two-term presidencies, Ronald Reagan was on 63 per cent and Bill Clinton on 62. Even George W Bush was only four points lower than Obama is now.
Yet the stardust British politicians hope will be sprinkled over them by association with the American president is a blind faith, bedazzling politicians of left and right and Miliband joins a long line of homage-payers. Some, it has to be said, more fortunate than others.
During a visit to the White House in 1987, Ronald Reagan mistook shadow foreign secretary Denis Healey for the British ambassador and publicly criticised Neil Kinnock’s (then) policy on unilateral nuclear disarmament.
John Major got on well enough with George Bush Senior (who was even greyer and duller than he was); but fluffed the subsequent relationship with Bill Clinton after dispatching Tory researchers to dig up dirt on his student adventures when he was at Oxford.
George W. Bush’s relationship with Tony Blair requires full-scale psycho-analysis, but Junior yelling “Yo Blair” to attract a Prime Minister’s attention at a G8 summit was hardly a high watermark for “the special relationship” in anyone’s estimation.
Still, marginally better than Gordon Brown being rebuffed five times by Obama’s team when he was angling for a private meeting, settling, as Brown’s former press secretary, Damian McBride, noted in The Times earlier this week, for a “passing chat in the United Nations kitchen.”
Only Harold Wilson comes out of this asymmetric courtship with any credibility. By refusing Lyndon Johnson’s generous invitation to deploy British soldiers in Vietnam, Wilson earned his not inconsiderable Texan wrath, but the stand emerges as perhaps Harold’s finest hour.
To be fair, Ed Miliband’s trip to see Obama seems to have passed off well enough with their chat centring on a tour d’horizon of geopolitical hot spots. Indeed, Ed’s love of the Boston Redsox – a totally unusable attribute in British politics if ever there was one – seems to have served as a useful ice-breaker. (Albeit, the trip was dangerously over-briefed. What would have happened if Obama had not found time to “brush by?”)
But despite the bonhomie, Obama is a false idol for those on the British left looking at how to govern successfully in 2015. Making a go of office means being hard-headed, realistic and focused on delivering outcomes. Obama may be able to campaign in poetry, but Ed Miliband needs to govern in prose.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut