In my adult lifetime, US Presidencies have each been eight years, and so they bookend periods in life more than the less predictable UK political calendar. With greater distance, I now associate the Clinton or Bush eras with a certain way I felt at the time*. And this week’s joyless transition is once again a closing of a chapter for many of us outside the US. See earlier posts for thoughts on whether it also marks the closing of the American century.
There will be huge amounts of better-informed comment out there today, and I can’t share thoughts on the US/UK policy exchanges of the Obama Presidency, nor some juicier anecdotes. So I just have a few self-centred stories that will form part of my memory of Obama.
On Obama’s election night, I couldn’t sleep and went into Downing Street to watch the results come in. At dawn I woke Gordon Brown to tell him the news, and we worked fast to ensure that the UK PM was the first European leader he spoke to – not because that made much practical difference, but because the British media would have fallen into a self flagellating frenzy otherwise. When the call happened, I stood with the PM as he congratulated Obama. Bizarrely, both of us were in white tie, striking a slightly Edwardian note to the moment. Also slightly bizarrely, amid the discussion of the global economy and Middle East, Obama looked forward to a game of tennis together.
2009 was a period when international partnership was more fashionable than 2016. Looking back, it is extraordinary to think how many international summits the new President had to attend. He struck in those first encounters a note of genuine humility, but there was also real steel. He was more transactional than European leaders had expected, and less chummy. But he knew his stuff inside out, in a way few could match. At the Copenhagen summit, after a marathon of failed negotiation, he did the deal with India and China, and then dropped it without any sugar coating on a roomful of glum and exhausted EU leaders.
When David Cameron became PM, my first job was to hand him the phone with Obama on the line. As I walked to the office to meet the new PM for the first time, I had just been on the line for Obama’s gracious farewell call to Gordon Brown. It was a searing way to experience our own transition of power, and Obama judged both calls better than any other leader.
At one of David Cameron’s early summits as PM, the lengthy statements, warm room and jet lag were getting to all of us. I asked Reggie Love how his boss was coping. A couple of minutes later, Obama sidled past, reached surreptitiously into his jacket, and slipped me enough Pro Plus to get both David Cameron and me through the next session.
At another summit, our helicopter broke down. I asked Rahm Emmanuel (Obama’s Chief of Staff) if we could hitch a lift with Obama on Marine Force One. Without hesitation, he offered two places, and then with a mischievous glint said ‘good luck with that negotiation’. Andy Coulson and I played ‘scissors, paper, stone’ to see who would accompany the PM. I lost. When I finished at No 10, David Cameron gave me a model Marine Force One to remind me of missing out.
One final Obama anecdote. On his first visit to No 10, as a candidate, we had agreed with his team to ensure that the visit lasted longer than the media expected. So I showed him Thatcher’s old study, and the particles of moon rock that Nixon had given Wilson. Instead of the moment of rhetoric I’d hoped for, Obama recoiled a bit. Only later did I realize that my son had left some friendly fire on my tie when I had changed his nappy/diaper that morning. To this day, I don’t know if Obama’s view of British hygiene was forever damaged.
It is too soon to judge Obama’s place in history. But I think his era has been a good one to live through. The arc of the moral universe did bend a bit. And we are going to miss the intellectual heft, the modesty and grace, and the recognition that politics and diplomacy are more than a reality TV show.