Friday, 3 April 2009

When Britain Met the Obamas...

Well Barack and Michelle have come... and gone. This is a country where Barack is lavishly adored, and he made a good impression on this visit. But I think he did surprise a few folks by being, as one commentator put it "more of the Professor". In his press conferences he was substantive but he chose his words carefully and with slow precision. In social occasions he flashed his bright smile and the Brits warmed to him - but he had a lot on his plate in this trip and winning over the masses wasn't nearly so important as winning over the men and women representing the 19 other countries of the G20.

So the task of dazzling and delighting the hearts of the people fell, as it often does to the First Lady. Fortunately, Michelle managed it in style.

Michelle Obama is not an elected public official, but she's married to one who has also prevailed over considerable adversity, only just starting the really hard part too. So we can be impressed by a performance which combines discipline with evident emotion. "I do hugs," she is reported as saying to the girls, who promptly behaved as if she were Whitney Houston.

The BBC reports:

She has attracted as much interest and column inches as her husband on this London trip; creating a buzz with her dazzling outfits, her own schedule of events and her own fanbase.

Columnist Mariella Frostrup was also suitably impressed:

She arrived resplendent in green and turquoise, accepting the attendant fuss with good humour and a discernible slice of healthy cynicism. Distributing hugs and handshakes wherever she moved, she looked like a woman trained in the art of being centre of attention.

When I asked if she'd been prepared for the hysterical reception they had received everywhere, she replied with a girlish grin that nobody could be prepared for such an experience.

Yet conversations such as the one the day before - when she attempted to excite the Obama girls with details of her visit to the Queen, and they preferred to tell mum about their April Fool's antics at home - kept life in perspective. Her mission, she said, was to make sure her daughters, who will still be young when they depart the White House, are equipped for life beyond the bubble.

My thinking is this: Michelle is a smart, down to earth, successful woman in her own right and a naturally affectionate human being. These are great qualities in public figure. I've met her and found her effortlessly charming. Although the question of whether the charm really is "effortless" is an interesting one.

Her now-famous meeting with the Queen (engaging in what appears to be the first mutual and consensual public hug in Elizabeth II's entire reign - another Obama first!) reminded me that one of America's tactical disadvantages on the international stage is the absence of a Head of State separate from the head of Government. Please note - I'm NOT advocating for an American monarchy (I'm not even crazy about having one here) but for the recognition that there is a difference between the role of a Head of State in generating national and international goodwill and performing ceremonial duties, and that of a government leader, who sometimes needs to negotiate, disagree, possibly even argue with the other world leaders. This cannot comfortably be done by someone in the role of Head of State - who needs to be above and beyond politics.

That division was very much on display this week as Barack was doing hard core international negotiation and Michelle was visiting Schools and Hospitals. We are lucky enough to have a first lady who happens to be good at it - but I'm not sure it's right for us to expect that from our Presidential spouses, male or female. What do you think?

1 comment:

christine said...

I think Michelle is right to be doing what she's doing---cover twice as much ground!