British Prime Minister to Meet with McCain, Clinton, and Obama
By Michael Abramowitz and Kevin Sullivan
The British prime minister is visiting Washington this week, and for the first time in seven years his most important meeting may not occur in the Oval Office: Gordon Brown is planning to meet Thursday with each of the three U.S. presidential candidates, an effort to obtain a first-hand judgment of how U.S. policies -- and the relationship between Britain and the United States -- may change come January.
Brown's own relationship with President Bush has been cordial, but much less close than the ties Bush enjoyed with former prime minister Tony Blair, who bucked British public opinion to remain Washington's chief ally in Iraq and the wider battle against terrorism. With Bush in his final months in office, however, Brown is hoping to lay a foundation for closer relations with the next U.S. president, bolstering both transatlantic links and his own stature, according to analysts in London and Washington.
"Bush is largely irrelevant," said Peter Kellner, president of the YouGov polling firm in Britain. "But if the news comes across that McCain, Clinton and Obama all take this guy seriously, whether it's on the Middle East, climate change or the credit crunch, that would be a success."
Both the White House and British government emphasize that serious business remains on the agenda when Bush and Brown meet at the White House on Thursday afternoon, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the global economy. "The message that Brown wants to get across is that as far as he is concerned, it's still business as usual with Bush until Jan 20," said Nick Allan, the press secretary for the British Embassy here.
One thing the two leaders share is low popularity: Brown's approval ratings are sagging amid growing economic problems and what critics call a lack of direction in his government. A YouGov poll last weekend found that 28 percent of Britons thought Brown was doing a good job, his lowest approval rating since taking office last summer.
With the U.S. election in full swing, the British and other foreign governments are looking beyond the Bush administration and searching for clues on how the next president may shift course. To that end, Brown will sit down for 45 minutes with each of the candidates at the British Embassy on Thursday morning: Both Democratic candidates were interested enough in meeting the prime minister that they will hurry back to Washington from their debate in Philadelphia Wednesday night.
Brown has had a long-time working relationship with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), dating back to the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton, when Brown served as Britain's chancellor of the exchequer. He also conferred with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) when the presumptive GOP nominee traveled to London last month, but he has yet to meet with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
In some ways, any of three candidates would represent a break with Bush in several key areas that would likely please Brown, according to U.S, and British analysts. All three have signaled they would pursue a more aggressive effort to control greenhouse gas emissions and abandon controversial detainee policies that have proved unpopular in Great Britain. The major uncertainty involves Iraq: Clinton and Obama have stressed a desire to begin an expeditious withdrawal, while McCain has indicated he would not do so unless security improves.
Philip H. Gordon, a Brookings Institution expert on Europe who advises the Obama campaign, said that while Bush has moved to accommodate Britain and other European countries during his second term, he believes Brown "is looking for a new kind of American foreign policy after January 2009."
"Bush and the U.S. relationship has been a burden for Brown," Gordon said. "He can really turn the page with a new administration."
Randy Scheunemann, McCain's foreign policy adviser, suggested the page could be turned with a Republican administration as well. "Prime Minister Blair and President Bush came from different political backgrounds" but forged a strong alliance, he noted. "I think there's tremendous potential for Brown and McCain."
Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, said the meetings with Clinton, McCain and Obama were important for Brown, yet also a delicate moment in British domestic politics. "There's a strange thing in Britain, we're not sure if we want our leaders to be chummy or distant with America," Cowley said. "On the one hand, it's a superpower, on the other hand, there are plenty of people who think we got too close to Bush and paid the price."
Sullivan reported from London. Special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.
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April 15, 2008; 6:40 PM ET
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