Obama and Cameron – A Special Relationship?

In two years’ time David Cameron could well be Prime Minister, and it is possible that Barack Obama could be President of the USA. Both have galvanised electorates with a message of change. Both are opposing unpopular and flawed administrations. Both understand the power of new technology and the way the web and the fragmentation of the media is changing politics.

There are, however, important differences. When the background is Credit Crunch, slowdown, and a long war in the Middle East, of course people want change. The question is, ‘What change?’ We now know David Cameron wants lower taxes, through cutting waste and sharing the proceeds of growth. Obama presumably has to accept higher taxes, as he has ambitious plans to increase state spending. David Cameron wants free trade and free enterprise to drive living standards higher. Obama has some protectionist and interventionist views. David Cameron is well advanced with major policy work, going into great detail in every area. Obama is travelling policy-light. David Cameron is currently way ahead in the polls, while Obama is still neck-and-neck with McCain.

There are important things we can learn from Obama, as I remarked very early in his campaign when I liked what I saw in terms of political technique. Obama has shown you can enthuse new people with politics, through the old-fashioned power of great words well spoken in public meetings, allied to words well written on the web. He has shown you can raise more money by seeking small donations from many rather than relying on large donations from a few. He has shown how a more personal appeal through web and email can grow an army of supporters for a candidate.

I think David Cameron would get on fine on a personal level with him. The policy disagreements on economic and tax matters would not, on the whole, matter, as they are largely domestic decisions in each country. I suspect an Obama presidency would end up looking more like a Bush presidency, once the Pentagon had sucked him in to their more warlike view, and once the Treasury and Commerce Departments had explained to him the advantages of freer trade. McCain still has plenty of room to push for victory, and the Mc Cain relationship has been developed by David Cameron in Opposition.

Obama showed an ability to master old combative politics when he needed to and he got rid of opponents by legal challenges to their nomination papers. He should not be underestimated, but we should remember that his message of change is so far spin and rhetoric. He has yet to build a solid policy platform in the way David Cameron is doing.


  1. Stuart Fairney
    June 4, 2008

    From the little he has revealed, Obama seems to be an old style tax and spender but the US economy can't take much more debt and frankly, more taxes would be the equivalent of throwing a drowning man an anvil.

    So like Blair, he may be successful at winning elections and getting people pointlessly enthused in support of a vague message, but I don't think that he will be an effective leader in any sense. Carter for the new Millenium perhaps when the world needs a new Reagan or Barry Goldwater

  2. Freeborn John
    June 4, 2008

    There is something astonishingly fresh about Obama. US elections often seem to hinge on personalities rather than policies and if that is true this year I would think Obama will walk it come November.

    BTW I was wondering if you had any thoughts on McCain’s ‘League of Democracies’ idea which Obama also seems to support in a slightly different guise. The idea is for an UN-lite organisation consisting of only the world’s democracies and intended to enforce the peace when the UN cannot reach agreement. It seems a superficially attractive idea to me but I assume it would only ever make a difference if willing to act without UN approval which seems dangerous.

    I would prefer to see a more exclusive body than McCain envisages, e.g. formed by NATO evolving to take in English-speaking countries in the Pacific and other reliable partners such as Japan, S. Korea, etc. and perhaps keeping some of the less reliable Continental countries out of veto-wielding positions in its unified military command. This might grow to provide more than just a defence and foreign policy setting role, e.g. to offer EU-like rights for the free movement of workers between its members.

    Reply: I favour an alliance of the Angloshpere democracies, as a counter weight to the EU and a faster way of reaching decisons than the UN, whilst keeping our UN membership.

  3. Tapestry
    June 4, 2008

    Freeborn, you could call the grouping the AU, a few letters ahead of the EU. That would wind 'em up in Brussels.

  4. mikestallard
    June 4, 2008

    (First of all, John, congratulations on your support in the house of Commons for Peter Lilley's excellent Bill to limit MP's pay. A brilliant idea and, it was obvious from the transcript that the Labour opposers had not the faintest clue about how to refute it! I can tell you, it would be really popular! And well done Conservative Home for noticing too.)
    One little point about your article: I can tell you, state by state, how Hillary and Obama slugged it out.
    Now tell me, which of the following do you support for your own country's Presidency of Europe after Lisbon has been officially (or unofficially?) put into practice:
    Margot Wallstrom, Anders Fogh Ramussen, Tony Blair or Hans-Gert Pottering?
    I think myself that it will be the outsider Jean Claude Juncker.

    Reply: I support none of them, as I do not want a President of Europe, and want someone who starts to dismantle the central power of the EU

  5. Freeborn John
    June 4, 2008

    It occurred to me there could be common ground between this ‘League of Democracies’ and a partial counterweight to the EU. If the UK could persuade the USA to start with a limited membership of English-speaking democracies then it could, even if limited to defence/foreign policy matters, at least act as a counterweight to being press-ganged into going along with an EU common foreign and security policy. Following Tapestry’s comment I have this image of a British foreign secretary breezing into an EU Council of Ministers meeting late saying ‘sorry old chaps, no can do … just agreed the necessary action in the other place…’.

    I read several analyses of McCain’s ‘League of Democracies’ in normally pro-EU or pro-UN media. With the exception of Federal Union there has been unanimous condemnation of an idea that is essentially identical to Kant’s ‘League of Peace’. I would have thought the Guardian, FT, etc. would have supported an idea of such impeccable liberal credentials and can only conclude anti-Americanism leads them to dismiss McCain’s big idea.

  6. Steven_L
    June 4, 2008

    "I suspect an Obama presidency would end up looking more like a Bush presidency, once the Pentagon sucked him in to their more warlike view, and once the Treasury and Commerce Departments explained to him the advantages of freer trade." (JR)

    Are you suggesting that politicans are weak-willed souls who submit to the whims of unelected bureaucrats, faithfully signing everything in their in-trays and repeating the line given to them by the officials?

    Perhaps in the this case a Cameron premiership will end up looking more like a Blair one, as the civil servants in the Treasury suck him into their views on taxation and the various departments explain to his various ministers the 'importance' of all their spending.

  7. William B.
    June 5, 2008

    The success of any new President is dependent to a huge degree on the problems and perceived desires of the USA at the time he or she takes office. The same, indeed, can be said of a change of government in the UK.

    Every new President faces one specific problem of concern to Americans generally. Other lesser issues are relevant but it is the big issue which is determinative. If he solves it, he is generally considered a success although other factors might impinge on his ability to gain re-election and on his place in history.

    Nixon inherited the Vietnam war; Ford inherited Nixon's defilement of the office; Reagan inherited a stagnant economy; Clinton inherited a stale and bored country. All succeeded in overcoming the prime challenge (Nixon, of course, is remembered most for Watergate but his record on the economy and foreign affairs stands comparison with any).

    Carter inherited an oil crisis and things never improved. Bush Senior inherited the inability of anyone to be another Reagan and just trod water for four years. Bush Junior inherited too much bureaucracy but has made minimal progress in rolling back the state, and the less said about Iraq the better.

    I believe that the central issue which will determine not only the identity of but also the success or failure of the new President is the balance between the power of the state and individual liberty. It is, I believe, no coincidence that the same issue is of huge importance at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic.

    This is an issue which has been a key part of Senator McCain's campaign while Senator Obama has focussed primarily on health care (no doubt because it has been Senator Clinton's preoccupation and she had to be defeated before he could turn to the national debate).

    No President in modern times has been elected by concentrating his campaign on a single issue of domestic policy other than macro-economics.

    Perhaps Senator Obama will follow Tony Blair's example and seek office on a ticket of "education, education, education" and "24 hours to save (create?) the health service", but domestic policy slogans of that type can only win an election when the underlying economy is sound and there is no other great issue causing concern.

    My guess (I would like to put it stronger than that, but it is just a guess) is that the issue I have identified above will be the focus of the campaigns of both candidates. The more Senator Obama promotes a tax-and-spend agenda, the less credible he will be when promising that government interference in everyday life will be limited.

    It would not surprise me at all to see President McCain inaugurated next January because I believe he has his finger on the pulse of the single most important issue in his country.

  8. Rose
    June 5, 2008

    You belong to a rare species: an intelligent, rational, and analytical being, and precious to us for that! But most voters, especially those all-powerful swing ones, are emotional. What I think is appealing to them about the two men is the apparent promise of change not to the future but to the past, rather as with Margaret Thatcher. For Americans, Obama seems a throwback to those slim, goodlooking, patriotic days of South Pacific, before drugs, obesity, and Vietnam; and David Cameron embodies the educated good manners and restraint of the England which is lost, and people now yearn for. Both seem by their personae to hold out the hope, without speaking it, that the ugly excesses of modernity might somehow be reversed. McCain should also be able to have that effect as he is the genuine article, but he is now grown old, so it will be difficult, as people are more swayed by what they see and feel, than by what they know.

  9. […] in June, John Redwood flew a kite about Cameron and Obama maintaining the “special relationship”: I think David Cameron […]

Comments are closed.