Having beaten other hopefuls to the starting block, Gordon Brown has this week become the first European leader to visit the White House since Obama’s inauguration. He travelled with the hope of renewing the transatlantic ‘special relationship’, normally characterised by foreign policy, with talk of economic partnership. Key to this partnership is the setting up a ‘Global New Deal’, which provides an international regulatory framework for the world’s largest economies. If Brown has his way then the global financial system will have a common set of criteria by which to govern financial institutions.
Although Obama refrained from making any promises he has, at least in principle, backed Brown’s regulatory plan and seemed keen to liken his economic policies to those of the Prime Minister. His readiness to identify with Brown came as a surprise to many given the way the Labour Party is perceived in the US. This public perception seems to have been summed up fairly well by CNN anchor Lou Dobbs who described Brown, somewhat unfairly, as head of the “socialist Labour Party”. The images that the word “socialist” conjures up in a post-cold-war US will not be overly positive and, in fairness to New Labour, not even that accurate. Perhaps aware of the doubts of the American public Obama made sure to emphasise Brown’s “belief in the free market” and “government that is not overbearing”.
Brown will be pleased with the boost that Obama’s backing will give Labour who currently trail behind the Tories in opinion polls. After a particularly gloomy period for the Labour party this good news will be much welcomed. Their hope will be, however, that Obama’s backing is the thing that people remember about the trip rather Brown’s refusal to admit any responsibility for the financial crisis when reminded about this at a press conference in the Oval Office. Chancellor Alistair Darling has admitted that mistakes had been made but Brown maintains that his policies were “right for the times of 1997”. Despite this one doubts that the ‘Brownonomics’ of 1997 were intended to have such a short sell-by date.
The highlight of the visit was Brown’s address at a joint session of congress, arguably one of the most important speeches of his career. Through suitably Americanised rhetoric he praised the country and emphasised the need for global cooperation, radical response to climate change, and condemnation of protectionism which, he said, “in the end protects no one.” Needless to say Brown enjoyed the treatment that speechmakers are accustomed to in the US, among them the 19 standing ovations he received (conveniently the same number as his predecessor in 2003). But despite this apparent enthusiasm there was a noticeable lull following his advice on protectionism. Brown may have been preaching to the choir when speaking about the greatness of America but he has a lot more convincing to do on this particular economic issue, particularly among Republicans who were noticeably the more timid in their applause.
A mere hour after Brown boarded his plane back to boring old Britain, Obama was on the phone congratulating him on his congressional speech. No doubt the gunging of Lord Mandelson on Friday provided our Prime Minister with a reminder that this side of the Atlantic political life isn’t quite as glamorous. Somehow I doubt that there’ll be as many standing ovations tomorrow at Prime Minister’s questions. For now it remains to be seen whether the bond between the UK and the US will turn out to be one that, as Obama put it, “will only get stronger”. ‘Obama-Brown’ simply doesn’t have the same alliterative ring to it as ‘Bush-Blair’. Let’s hope that when Obama comes to visit us next month for the G20 conference we’ll be reassured.