The U.S. National Interest and the Falkland Debate

This week has seen the wonder of democracy at work with a ballot held on the Falkland Islands in regard to their continued status as a British territory. You may have heard that they voted overwhelming in favour! Notwithstanding that a vote so heavily slanted in one direction would have raised eyebrows in any number of countries, the vote was a clear and unequivocal rejection of any entities from Argentina.

In the midst of the simmering row between London and Buenos Aires, however, a third party has been widely critiqued for its efforts to remain neutral: the United States of America. The White House reaction to the vote has been tepid at best and downright insulting to British interests, to say nothing of what it says about the state of the Special Relationship. Certainly Downing Street and the FCO will be extremely disappointed by the derisory reaction that emanates from a nation that has repeatedly placed democratic promotion at the heart of its foreign policy. Judging by the wording, however, this will have been written by a bureaucrat, not a political appointee at the State Department.

It is clear that some of this criticism can be dismissed as politically motivated nonsense by those seeking any reason to attack this particular White House as long as it is occupied by Barack Obama, who has proved to be a particularly ineffectual president in terms of foreign policy. Some criticism can also be dismissed as the typical carping of European anti-American intellectualism, happy to sleep easy under the military security that America provides, whilst spending every waking hour criticising the manner in which they do so. However, it is important to consider a third rationale: Ignorance about the manner in which nations adopt stances on the international stage coupled with a flawed appreciation of history and geography.

First up is the problem of the Monroe Doctrine that commits the United States to a defence of Western hemispheric powers against European colonial interference. It may be a little outdated, but it is still worth bearing in mind that a strict adherence to this document would place the United States squarely behind Argentinean claims to the islands.

Doubtless there will be those who put American neutrality down to apparent anti-colonial sentiment as personified by Obama, eager to pivot to the Pacific and opposed to the ‘evil’ British due to our history of imperial conquest. To those who think this is impacting the current situation, I say merely “Wake Up.” This is not how decisions are made at a national, strategic level. Neither is this a ‘Democratic’ problem, a fact revealed by an appreciation of history. Lest anyone think that things would be different with a Republican in the White House, consider what happened in 1982.

When diplomatic niceties broke down between London and Buenos Aires in the 1980s the Reagan Administration singularly failed to ride to the defence of the UK, leading to similar claims in regard to the status and relative importance of the Special Relationship. The president was adamant that the United States was intent on maintaining good relations with both the UK and Argentina, whilst his Ambassador to the United Nations, neo-conservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick was adamantly pro-Argentinean to the point that the British Ambassador referred to her as “more fool that fascist.” Reagan’s Secretary of State Al Haig was perceived to be pro-British, causing a public rift in the administration that ended only when President Reagan ordered Kirkpatrick to vote against her personal wishes in favour of the UK at the United Nations.

Eventually, the Americans came though and were instrumental in ensuring British military victory in the South Atlantic, providing state of the art missile technology, satellite feeds and, as revealed recently under the thirty year rule, offering to provide an aircraft carrier.

At this point in time the Obama Administration finds itself in the initial stages of a spat between two allies, just as Reagan did in the 1980s. Like Reagan, Obama will do his best to stay out of the situation and remain neutral hoping nothing serious develops. Only when push comes to shove will he break one way or the other. That is not unexpected; it is what nations do. Right now, it serves no American purpose to do otherwise. Nations act for one purpose and one purpose only, when it is in their National Interest. Right now, it is not in America’s National Interest to choose sides because it doesn’t need to. We in the UK might not like this, and it certainly doesn’t place Obama in a favourable light, but fence sitting is standard diplomatic practice.

The saving grace in this situation is that precedent is on the side of the British. The Americans prevaricated before, and they are doing so again. Now, as then, I expect that they will come to aid the UK if, and only if, it becomes necessary to do so. As Sir Winston Churchill, an ardent admirer of the United States and himself half-American, put it so well; “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

How Executive Hubris Trumps Bipartisan Reform Efforts

During their respective time in office, both Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton asserted their believe that legislation stood a greater chance of succeeding if no one cared who took the credit. Ronald Reagan believed this so strongly, that he had the words inscribed on a plaque that he kept on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. (Replicas are available for purchase at the Reagan Library). Bill Clinton, speaking in reference to reducing the national dept, stating the approach explicitly in his first State of the Union address. Much has changed in the ensuing years.  Now, in 2013, it appears that the Obama Administration has inverted this sentiment and would rather see legislation fail if it can’t be covered in all of the glory and receive all of the credit. If this is not the explicit approach being adopted by the Obama Administration, then the Congressional Liaison staff is going out of their way to make it appear so.

Over the past four years relations between the White House and Congress have been testy at best, even when Democrats controlled both houses with a super majority in the Senate. The situation deteriorated sharply following the 2010 mid-term elections and a federal budget has not been passed since. Any hopes that a new era would emerge following the 2012 election cycle have vanished, as both Republicans and Democrats have clung to their respective mandates as reason to continue to obstruct and delay for at least the next two years. Whilst flaws exist on both sides, the White House has, in rapid succession, demonstrated a stunning disregard for political process and for the nuance required to pass legislation in Congress. In a political system explicitly designed to frustrate, the Obama Administration appears determined to make matters worse rather than better. Two incidents highlight what appears to be administration obstructionism of the worst possible kind that threatens the economic, political and cultural integrity of the nation.

The first issue arose in the last days of 2012, as the United States was hurtling towards what became universally known as the Fiscal Cliff. Economists, political consultants and media pundits speculated wildly as to the potential repercussions of such an event, whilst in D.C., high-level negotiations continued in an apparent effort to prevent such an incident. This, of course, had been an artificial deadline, imposed to ensure that politicians of both sides of the aisle worked together to agree upon a budget. This apparently was too much to ask for. However, with the deadline looming politicians gathered into the early hours to thrash out a deal that would be mutually agreeable to Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet whilst these negotiations were moving forward, President Obama chose to stage a campaign style rally on the White House campus surrounded by a group of children who he claimed would suffer under the proposals put forth by the Republican Party.

Now, to be clear, the Republican Party and its leadership hardly covered themselves in glory in this process and as a result questions were asked as to the continued viability of John Boehner’s Speakership. However, putting Republican ineptitude to one side, the decision of the president to stage such a politically inept event at the very moment that negotiators were meeting to flesh out an agreement spoke volumes as to the tin ear that that the administration has and to its appalling capacity to deal with Congress. Just as negotiations were nearing completion the president elected to play politics rather than work to ensure an agreeable solution. It should not surprise anyone that the final deal appears to have been struck by Vice President Biden, and the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, two old boys from the Senate who have known each other for decades and who are used to working together to solve problems; In other words, two politicians who understand how and why Congress works and importantly, how not to get things done. Even then, the best that they could do was to kick the problem 3 months down the road, so that we are faced with the dilemma once more. In the coming days the spectre of Sequestration will loom large once more as the U.S. hovers above a financial abyss. Once more the world will look on aghast and ponder the fate of the world’s most important economic powerhouse and the childish antics of its leading politicians.

The second incident involved a similar situation but a different set of circumstances. For years, politicians in Washington have been debating immigration reform. However, only rarely do serious proposals see the light of day and make it out of various committees. In Washington, failed legislation can become toxic and persuade any career minded politician to avoid the issue for years, possibly even decades (as occurred with health care). So when a bipartisan group of serious minded, intelligent Senators (known as the Group of 8) got together in an effort to present a balanced and logical series of initiatives on the issue, you would have imagined that this was something the White House would have been supportive of, but you would be wrong.

Instead of welcoming such moves and working either quietly or openly to promote a bipartisan initiative to solve this long-standing issue, the White House appears determined to kill it at birth. The first inept move was for President Obama to insist on delivering a speech in Las Vegas within hours of the Group of 8 press conference on the issue, which had been the very image of bipartisanship. This immediately drew attention and political momentum away from the work that had been conducted on the issue and muddied the waters in relation to the situation. As if this wasn’t bad enough, USA Today has now been provided with draft legislation from the White House that would appear to directly challenge the bill being proposed by the Group of 8.

If passage of immigration reform was the political priority of the administration it had a perfect opportunity to pursue a bipartisan bill that would have put Obama and his former 2008 adversary John McCain and his potential successor in 2016, Marco Rubio, on the same side of the issue. Instead, the White House has sought to politicise the issue and risks torpedoing the issue. One must ask at what point ineptitude becomes a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and be bloody-minded. Whichever approach is being adopted, the end result is the same; bipartisan legislation is being undermined, politics is becoming sullied and confidence in the United States is being shaken at precisely the moment that it needs to provide global leadership in time of economic crisis.

This continuing escapade is a clear and telling reminder of Obama’s lack of legislative experience and should be a warning the next time a candidate has the hubris to declare himself ready for the presidency after little more than 18 months in the U.S. Senate.  Leadership, it appears, was not on the ballot in 2012, let us hope it will be in 2016.

The United States: Still the World’s Indispensable Nation?

For many years, America’s place in the world fluctuated between a concentration on the acquisition of power and attempts to reject the responsibility of power. Such sentiment goes a long way in explaining the American dilemma of how best to engage with the rest of the world. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the United States saw an inexorable rise in its global status, as it attained the position of “the world’s indispensable nation.” As the British Empire crumbled, so America was in the ascendancy: its politics, culture and media grew, apparently at an exponential rate, to dominate the globe. Now, as America enters a summer of political conventions and a choice of directions, those who speak of an American decline routinely call her stature into question. After almost a term in office, where has President Obama positioned the United States with respect to the rest of the world?

Happily, whilst an isolationist stance is often present in America, a penchant for internationalism has always been apparent and is most evident in efforts to transplant American values around the globe. America has long seen herself as having a special mission in the world, viewing herself as innocent and virtuous in the midst of a tainted world. Indeed American isolationism does not involve American secession from the rest of the world, but rather a rejection of commitments to other states, to avoid what Jefferson referred to as “entangling alliances.” Whilst the debate between interventionists and isolationists has never been fully resolved, a cycle of behaviour appears to have emerged, with each policy taking a political generation to run its course. This is a prime example of what Arthur Schlesinger refers to as “the cycles of American history.”

Through Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua and numerous other Cold War flash points, the United States viewed its position in the world through its self-proclaimed mission to “defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Not only was America faced with military engagement, but also the risks of an unstable global economic environment. As the world grew smaller, so America became dependent upon foreign trade and currency exchanges, something that is all too apparent today.

During the 1990s America’s place in the world went through a revolution all of its own, as the collapse of the USSR left America as the world’s sole super-power. However, just as the world had to readjust to the decline in power of the former Soviet republics, so it also had to consider the new role of the US as a world hyper power. It achieved this status at a precipitous moment, just as a new president was intent on forging a domestic revival rather than international expansionism. For Bill Clinton, it would be the “economy, stupid,” not the fate of the world, that would dominate.

Like President Bush before him, Bill Clinton readily accepted America’s position as the remaining super- power and sought to use his nation’s status in attempts to expand NATO. American envoys brokered deals in Haiti and Bosnia, whilst Operation Vigilant Warrior kept Kuwait free. American duality was expressed by the President himself, declaring “America cannot turn her back on the world” whilst simultaneously stating, “America cannot be the world’s policeman.” Clinton had little doubt however, that the Twenty-First Century would become the second American Century.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, there was reason to believe that America’s role in the world would remain essentially as it was before, with little new initiatives in foreign policy or any revolution in economic policy. As Bush was sworn in, America and the world were in a position all but unimaginable just a decade before. Rather than living on the brink of nuclear war, in a bipolar international system, Bush took power in the midst of a unipolar world, apparently free from the deadly rivalry of the Cold War. It was a period that did not long endure. The attacks of September 11, 2001 produced a seismic shift in the role America would play in the world at the dawn of the Third Millennium.

The attacks challenged President Bush to reposition America in the world. He would not be content with basking in historically high opinion ratings, or in the warmth of global sympathies. For Bush, September 11 was a clarion call to right the wrongs of the Cold War, to end the tradition of coddling tyrants as long as they sang America’s song. The nation found itself in the aftermath of the attacks of being in a position of great strength and yet also great sympathy, not a usual occurrence. In that moment it had the opportunity to do great things, to indeed herald a Second American Century. By accepting the sympathies of the world and by turning that emotion into positive action that could have bound the nations of the world together against terror, the United States could have demonstrated true benevolence and foresight. However the attacks on New York and Washington produced a wave of sympathy for the United States that the current administration has proved unable to transform into popular support for its policies. By moving into Iraq, the nation squandered its inheritance of compassion. Under Bush, the assertive multilateralism of Clinton was replaced by a determined unilateralism, cloaked by a scant “coalition of the willing.” His moves in Afghanistan appeared to be considered and met with support; his moves into Iraq, long sought by the Project for a New American Century, were less welcomed and proved contentious.

In his speeches and in his comments, President Bush painted a world of black and white, of good guys and bad guys. By establishing a clash of civilisations, Bush removed the middle ground and in a world of grey, black and white may be bold but will always be viewed as extreme. In this campaign, there is no middle ground, no possibility of disagreement on detail with the US strategy, for such disagreement would be interpreted as a betrayal of “good” ideology. As Bush declared in January 2002, “We need not be focused on one person, because we’re fighting for freedom and civilized civilization.”

The challenge that President Obama has struggled to address is of addressing the future direction of the United States. Successful leaders, whether one agreed or disagreed with their motives or intentions, presented a vision of an American future that the nation could aspire to. Whether that was an embrace of Manifest Destiny or a challenge of a New Frontier, both Republican and Democrat presidents have found a way top show Americans the next step in their national journey. Those presidents that have failed to achieve greatness have often don so due to their unwillingness to offer a vision of a better tomorrow. Thus far President Obama has struggled to define America’s place in the world or a direction that he intends to chart in a second term.

Some have sought to contrast President Obama to Jimmy Carter and it is an interesting, if not completely accurate comparison to make. Both men were honourable, honest and moral individuals who were seen to be remote and often guilty of adopting an air of moral superiority that made them hard to empathise with, in stark contrast to Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, for example. However, despite similarities, this is not 1980, Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan, and vitally, Obama has not faced an internal rival as Carter did in the form of Ted Kennedy.

Despite these differences, President Obama would be well advised to take a leaf out of Ronal Reagan’s playbook at this stage in the election and offer a vision of the future and a positive rationale for a second term. His re-e-lection is far from certain and his campaign could not suffer form the injection of some well-intended optimism. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Perhaps. But so do administrations.

Don’t Dream It’s Over…but it is for John Huntsman

So in the aftermath of the New Hampshire Primary, a candidate has finally realised that they are NOT going to be President of the United States and appears set to throw in the towel. Who is this wise sage you may ask? Newt Gingrich? Rick Santorum? Ron Paul? (The list could go on and on and on…)

No, the answer is John Huntsman, someone who has struggled to gain traction, votes, or even name recognition in some regions and who is all set to withdraw and endorse his fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney.

Huntsman had been championed in some quarters as a serious candidate this year, but things went wrong from the start. His great unveiling ceremony, designed to replicate a similar address by Ronald Reagan so many decades ago, was ruined by unsightly boats in the background that blocked the view of the Statue of Liberty. Republicans remained suspicious of a candidate who until recently had worked for the enemy, sorry, the President of the United States, as ambassador to China (and who could therefore also speak a foreign language, admittedly, not French, something else that was a clear negative). Finally, he was a Mormon, which Mitt Romney has discovered, is hardly something to engender ‘raptures’ amongst the Christian Evangelicals that Republicans will need to woo in vast numbers if they are to reclaim the White House this year.

Huntsman had elected not to campaign in the Iowa Caucuses, remarking that ‘they pick corm in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Alas his extensive efforts to woo the voters of the Granite state came to nothing, as he polled just 16.9% and came in third behind Romney and Paul. Seriously, whoever advised his campaign that betting huge in Romney’s neighbouring state was the way to win the nomination should never work in politics again. Indeed, this campaign season has been beset by terrible political decisions; Sarah Palin’s dithering; Romney’s shoe shine antics and various utterances regarding firing people; Rick Perry’s ENTIRE campaign and Huntsman’s all or nothing focus on New Hampshire. Considering that Perry has made a similar effort to focus on South Carolina (where he is currently polling just 6%), his continued viability must surely come into question.

Huntsman’s expected departure will doubtless be the first of several such decisions, as candidates look at the vast costs involved in running primary campaigns in both South Carolina and Florida, the latter of which in particular requires huge advertising budgets just to stay in the game. As the inevitable begins to set in, expect to see similar announcements between now and the end of the month. Such a move will help to solidify the conservative opposition to Romney, as this vote will no longer be splintered between the various candidates who are NOT Mitt Romney. This development has, however, come a little late in the game to be truly effective although it may allow Newt Gingrich to remain in the race, if he is able to muster their support.

Ron Paul is likely to be unaffected by this decision since his core supporters appear utterly unimpressed by the Republican mainstream candidates and would, in all honesty, be advised to form a third party Libertarian movement. They won’t for many reasons. Not least of which is that to do so would simply split the vote on the right and hand the election to the Democrats. Their best bet is to wage a Pat Buchanan-esque rearguard action and to ensure a prime time speaking slot at the convention and a say in defining the platform for the fall. Of course, in 1992 Pat Buchanan ensured that his voice was heard loud and clear and it was his remarks, rather than the candidate’s (a chap named Bush) that resonated in the ears and minds of American voters that fall…. as they queued to elect Bill Clinton. Such is life!

Twisting in the Wind: The Shameful Treatment of the LSE

Over the past week or so it cannot have escaped the attention of a proportion of the population that the London School of Economics has been rather mired in a scandal, seemingly of its own making. The allegations surround the university’s ties with the Libyan authorities in general and their education of Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif, specifically.

Needless to say, this has all made for easy headlines, noisy protests and the furrowing of brows among much of the left-leaning intelligentsia in the UK. The affair has now led to the honourable resignation of the university’s director, Sir Howard Davies. Yet this furore is overshadowing the great work done by the university in general and the sterling work of the LSE IDEAS department in particular, which has hosted Professor Niall Ferguson this year, to great acclaim.

As a practicing academic in the current economic and educational climate it is hard to know where to start with the accusations that have been levelled at the LSE and its management.

For years of course, the Libyan regime was a pariah on the international scene, blamed for the downing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie and for over atrocities during the 1980s and early 1990s. It is no coincidence that the bad guys in Back to the Future were Libyan terrorists; in an age of Gorbachev’s reforms, ‘Mad Dog’ Gaddafi made a perfect foil for President Reagan.

Yet in the twenty-first century, quiet diplomatic efforts, led in part by the British government, appeared to make great strides, leading to the meeting between Gaddafi and Tony Blair and the Libyan leader’s rejection of a WMD programme. In line with these developments, and at the behest of the British government, the LSE advised the Libyan government with regard to its finances. At the same time, a number of British companies, including BP, sought to maximise the new potential that exited in dealing with this former adversary. For that was the situation as it stood until the past few weeks; of Libya as a reformed state, with whom the west could suddenly do business.

Little wonder therefore that organisations and universities were happy to trade and advise Libya since they were actively encouraged to so do by their own government! Advise Libya on financial matters? Why not! Educate potential Libyan leaders of tomorrow? No problem. And why should it be? After all, this was a country that was embraced on the UN Human Rights Council and was not seen as being worthy of inclusion in the now notorious Axis of Evil.

That the British government has allowed the LSE to twist in the wind like this is shameful, as is the all too obvious silence by former members of the Labour government. With former Foreign Secretary David Milliband due to address the LSE in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see what he has to say on the subject, unless, of course, he cancels in favour of his efforts to seek a career in television.

During the Second World War the United States’ government encouraged its citizens to join organisations that celebrated US ties with the USSR and its esteemed leader ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. Within a few short years this same government would accuse such citizens of being Communists as the McCarthy era purges began. The LSE is in such a position today.

The other allegations centre on the LSE’s decision to educate Gaddafi’s son, Saif. Educating an individual whose wealth and power may have questionable origins had better not be outlawed, else there will suddenly be both a mass exodus of students and with them a great deal of money from many British universities, right at the moment that they cannot afford to lose either. With less and less public money being allocated to the university sector, more and more institutions will be required to look elsewhere for their funding. If businesses and philanthropists come forward to provide assistance, great, but if not, then the bank accounts of the not so great and the not so good will look increasingly attractive and necessary if these academic institutions are to survive in the increasingly competitive marketplace of global education.

The LSE will no doubt be hoping that Sir Howard’s departure will draw a line under the issue and that the focus will now shift elsewhere. But no one working in academia or seeking a career in the university system should be under any illusions that this situation is in any way unique or that it will not happen again. Indeed, it is the proverbial tip of the iceberg and more likely to be the way of things in the future than any mere embarrassing solitary incident.

The State of the Union Address

With the presidential election looming on the horizon (well, ok, technically it’s at the end of NEXT year, but you understand), tonight’s State of the Union address is a vital occasion for President Obama. In recent weeks his polls have improved and it seems he has ‘benefited’ from the shooting in Arizona. Just as in 1995, the crazies may end up saving a liberal Democrat president by making him appear to be the voice of moderation in a world gone insane. Political violence is the great spectre that risks over-shadowing the forthcoming election cycle. It remains the great taboo in American politics, but that is a matter that will have to await another occasion…

Tonight will be Obama’s chance to showcase his credentials in primetime, to an audience of millions, at home and around the world. Forget what you may think, this is quickly becoming a global presidency, with the eyes of the world focused on the Capitol Building tonight. This is not simply a speech for the chamber. Tonight really marks the start of the race for the White House in 2012. A poor speech will knock the president off track, force him onto the defensive and give impetuous to the Republicans. A strong speech will remind Americans as to why they voted for Obama, of what he stands for, what he is against and what he has done so far. If Obama has demonstrated a weakness so far, it is in providing a narrative of his time in office. This needs to change, big time and tonight needs to be all about that change. Not ‘change we can believe in,’ but change that is tangible.

Two years ago, Obama basked in the glory of election and seeming universal adulation. Tonight he stands before the American people and those of us overseas who recognise the importance of the speech, as an older, hopefully wiser chief executive. I say hopefully because so far there is not necessarily the evidence that the Obama team have learned the lessons that Clinton did in the mid 90s, but time will tell. Obama has one big advantage going into the election season: No credible challenger from within his own party or even the Republicans. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has a singular claim to fame: An apparent inability not to burst into tears at any given moment: Hardly Commander-in-Chief material. His propensity for handkerchiefs is exacerbated by the prowling lipstick–wearing Pit-Bull/Grizzly Mama Bear better known as Sarah Palin, whose shameless self-promotion and inability to take one foot out of her mouth without replacing it with the other, makes her a rather inauspicious, though highly compelling candidate: In the same way that people watch NASCAR for the impact collisions. Of vital importance is the lack of a challenger for the Democratic Party’s nomination. I say vital because of a singular, salient fact: Incumbents who do not face a battle for their party’s nomination secure re-election. Period. Those who have to fight a rearguard action lose. End of story.

Obama’s mission tonight is to emerge head and shoulders above his Republican opponents. In the past they have actually helped him in this exercise by proving equal to their lowly billing. Tonight Obama needs to set out a path to re-election that ignores the results of the 2010 midterms and focuses on the big-picture; jobs, security, prosperity and legacy issues. He needs to think about what he wants Americans to be doing in January 2013. He needs to paint a picture of that and in so doing, make it happen, just as the Gipper and Clinton proved so capable of doing.

America’s greatest presidents have been those that have given voice to America’s greatest hopes for tomorrow and found a way to communicate that vision in an articulate and accessible manner. Tonight is Obama’s opportunity to continue to wide the wave he mounted in his reaction to the Tucson shooting (expect a massive play on this).

Can he do so? Can he deliver? Can he read from his teleprompters? Time will tell…

The Presidential Moment

What distinguishes one presidency from another? What ensures that some presidents remain virtually anonymous, whilst others live on as household names? To some degree it is their ability to seize the Presidential Moment. History reveals that whilst presidents may take office they do not necessarily become embraced by the nation until later in their term since they struggle to cloak themselves in the aura of the presidency until an event forces them to do so.

Wondering what I mean by this?

The assassination attempt on Reagan brought the country behind Ronnie in a way that seems to have been unlikely had the event not occurred. The Gipperr’s survival, coming less than 20 years after the national tragedy in Dallas, transformed him into a national icon who had literally taken one for the team and come through, smiling, joking and promising a new dawn. Morning in America was very nearly America in mourning, but Reagan’s living presence become the embodiment of the 1980s and a touchstone for Republican leaders ever since. Granted, Reagan had little say in the matter, but his resilience and personality counted. What impressed the American people was the manner in which he faced the situation and his ability to deliver a few gags with his surgeons before being operated on.  (“I hope you’re all Republicans”)

Flash forward to 1995. Bill Clinton was rapidly on his way to being a one-term president. He had been elected with 43% of the popular vote, had failed to secure health care, had made a hash of the gays in the military row, had failed to get two candidates appointed Attorney General, had the White-water issue hanging over his head, was facing claims of sexual harassment from Paula Jones, claims of inappropriate behaviour by his former Arkansas state troopers and his party had just lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich even forced Clinton to explain his continued relevancy live on CNN thanks to the impertinence of Judy Woodruff. This was a president who had nowhere to go but back to Arkansas.

And then the Federal Building was attacked in Oklahoma City.

This one event galvanised Clinton and he found his Presidential Moment. In a time of national tragedy, the eyes of the nation and its collective media turned not to the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, but the President of the United States, and for the first time, Clinton proved equal to his office. His task was made somewhat easier by the ties the bombers had to right-wing militias, but his speech in Oklahoma spoke of compassion and the need to unify as a nation. It brought the nation together and in an instant transformed Bill Clinton into the living embodiment of the President of the UNITED States, not just an elected official. From that point on, his operation was smoother, his ratings improved, as he correctly assumed the mantle of the office. His capacity to do so and he benefit he would draw from it, even helped him overcome the impeachment crisis of his second term, though it would not be enough to guarantee the election of his vice president.

Gore’s defeat gave rise to another presidency that took time to assume the full powers of the office. George W. Bush took office in the aftermath of the protracted debacle in Florida and his inaugural parade was the first to be declared a National Security Event by the US Security Services. His motorcade was raced through Lafayette Park to avoid the crowds who were already protesting against Bush, arguably before his presidency had even begun. For the following eight months Bush managed to risk relations with Russia by withdrawing from the AMB Treaty, risk relations with China over a downed spy plane, and alienated much of the world by failing to endorse the Kyoto agreement.

And then came 9/11.

Interestingly, however, Bush’s initial reaction to the national tragedy was not perceived well. To ensure the safety of the office of the presidency, the Secret Service demanded that Air Force One fly from Florida to Barksdale Air Force base near Shreveport, Louisiana and then on to the US Strategic Command centre in Offutt, Nebraska. Meanwhile, on the ground in lower Manhattan, the world’s media was focused on Ruddy Guiliani, the outgoing Mayor of New York, who was about to be christened Mayor of the World in a performance that would put the nation’s leader in the shade. Even when Bush was able to return to the White house, his performance in front of the cameras was not inspiring, as he virtually ran from the Oval Office in tears.

Yet Bush did find his Presidential Moment in the midst of the rubble of the Twin Towers when he spoke to rescue workers. Speaking through a megaphone (bullhorn) he famously told his audience (who were having trouble hearing him) “I hear you, the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will all of us soon.” In a single moment, he became THE president of the United States and brought together a grieving nation and a shocked world. Arguably, for a short time, President Bush could have done much to unify the world into a new era of peace and harmony. Beyond the individual tragedies of that day, this lost opportunity looms large as an historical blunder of epic proportions. Regardless, Bush’s ability to seize his presidential moment ensured his re-election in 2004 and allowed him to remain in office far longer than many had predicted in his initial months.

His place in the Oval Office would be taken by the first non-white president, Barack Obama, whose election was likened to a new start for America after the Bush years. Yet as Bush alienated the left, so too would Obama alienate the right, who saw him as elitist and too eager to introduced social policies that ran counter to the American can-do attitude. His right to govern was questioned by ‘birthers’ who claimed he was not an American citizen and by those who claimed he was a Muslim. With the losses incurred in the 2010 mid-term elections, many were predicting a one-term presidency for Obama.

Whilst that may still be a possibility, the assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Giffords and the president’s speech at the national memorial service appears to have been the moment that Obama seized the Presidential Moment. Even Glen Beck of Fox News, credited Obama with finding his voice and of rising to the occasion.

Not all presidencies are equal. Some presidents go their entire term in office without finding their presidential voice, or having a true presidential moment. But recent history has revealed a series of administrations were this has occurred, and in that moment, a nationally elected but still regional figure transforms. In that moment, his previous life is cast off and he becomes the President of the United States, a unifying figure capable of uniting the nation and guiding it towards a new dawn. The coming months will reveal the extent to which Obama is capable of emulating the likes of Clinton, Bush and Reagan. The rewards are there for he taking if he can do so, as is electoral oblivion if he does not… 

How will D.C. be received in DC?

With the new British government now having issued its much vaunted Emergency Budget, eyes will no doubt start to turn towards the Prime Minister’s imminent visit to Washington to meet President Obama. The first visit by the PM to the White House is always an important event and this will prove to be no exception.

The meeting comes at a delicate time for UK/US relations. With troops serving together in Afghanistan the room for disagreement is slender, yet focus will no doubt be concentrated upon any potential rift caused by the BP oil disaster.

The media will no doubt be looking for any sign of division caused by the events in the Gulf of Mexico, the may even go so far as to stress division where none exists. What they will miss, no doubt, is the change in fortune that the Conservatives are experiencing in Washington and the implications that this may have for the Special Relationship.

It is standard diplomatic practice for the American president to grant an audience to the Leader of the Opposition. Even Ronald Reagan extended this courtesy to Neil Kinnock despite his obvious (and stated) support for Prime Minister Thatcher. Recent events have been somewhat more problematic, however. William Hague met George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, prior to the election of 2000, but one wonders if the Texan governor thought that perhaps he was due to see former Secretary of State Al Hague?

In the years that followed the debacle of 2000 the leaders of Her Majesties’ loyal opposition were effectively given the cold shoulder in DC, so close was Bush to Blair. Michael Howard was considered persona non grata in Washington following his calls for Blair’s resignation and Ian Duncan Smith failed to make an impression in his 2002 visit.

Of course it is also true that the Conservatives have sought to gain access whilst still maintaining a low profile. David Cameron met Bush at the White House in a meeting in 2007, but images are hard to come by. Clearly there was a desire to be received in official Washington, but less of a desire to distribute images of Cameron with an unpopular president. Cameron’s visit in 2007 followed a 5 year absence from Washington for a leader of the Conservative Party, the longest since the advent of the jet engine.

When Prime Minster David Cameron returns to DC he will do so in a very different capacity and with a very different occupant of the White House. Barack Obama was the first foreign leader to congratulate Cameron upon becoming PM and the Foreign Secretary’s first overseas foray was to Washington and a meeting with Hillary Clinton.  This meeting was important as it presented the opportunity to reset official relations between London and Washington that has been waning for several years.

When Gorden Brown became PM he was eager not to become tainted by his relationship with George W. Bush, whose time in the White House was drawing to a close. Accordingly, Brown set a very different tone for the Special Relationship than had Tony Blair. However, it would appear that President Obama adopted a similar stance to Gordon Brown, not wishing to be seen as being to close to an unpopular British PM who was rightly expected to lose office at the earliest possible occasion.

With the departure of Brown and Bush and the emergence of Obama and Cameron, therefore, the slate has effectively been wiped clean, allowing for a new era in Transatlantic ties. Having met previously on Senator Obama’s trip to London in 2008, the PM will be eager to forge a new working relationship that is businesslike and balanced, avoiding the pitfalls that Blair fell into time and again for pandering to the White House with little or no derived benefit.

The Special Relationship is about far more than the chemistry between the two leaders, but when so much attention is focused upon their dealings, it has a disproportionate impact upon all other elements; politically, culturally and militarily. With this trip, the PM will be well placed to begin a new and positive era in US-UK relations and to put to rest overblown tales of Obama rejecting a bust of Churchill (which had only been lent to the Bush White House as W. was a known admirer) and of DVD gift sets. The past can be overcome. How the BP situation is dealt with, may well be another question…