LONDON, United Kingdom — Did you know Barack Obama is in town? A state visit. Staying at Buck House (That's Buckingham Palace to those of you not cool enough to live here). Queen Elizabeth II is throwing him a state dinner.
The centerpiece of the U.S. president's visit is a speech Wednesday in the Hall of the Palace of Westminster (Parliament to those of you not cool enough to live here). Westminster Hall is not the debating chamber C-Span addicts see when they watch Prime Minister's Question Time every week. The buildings you know as Parliament were built in the 19th century — they were designed to look old.
The Hall is the most ancient part of the complex, built in the 11th century, although it, too, is slightly fake old. The roof was badly damaged in the Blitz and is not original. Still, it is fair to say that across its cold stone floor a fair number of important British historical figures have acted out their personal and world-changing dramas. It is a very British place and only three other foreign leaders have given speeches in Westminster Hall: Charles De Gaulle, Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela. So, Obama giving a speech here is a big deal.
Except that in many ways it is not.
It is a measure of how the world has changed in recent years that Obama's imminent arrival has produced so little interest.
In November 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush made a state visit and was greeted by a massive anti-war demonstration that shut down the center of London. Commentators went into overdrive analyzing not just the "special relationship" between Britain and America but psycho-analyzing the relationship between Blair and Bush.
Although there was a brief visit shortly after Blair was elected in 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton's visits to the United Kingdom tended to be centered on Belfast rather than London. But they were also occasions for a certain amount of hysteria.
Obama hasn't inspired much hysteria here since his election night and the upcoming visit continues the trend.
The agenda for his discussions with British Prime Minister David Cameron are on the technocratic side, if the press reports in advance are anything to go by.
Closer cooperation between British security supremos and the U.S. National Security Council is the tidbit the Guardian uncovered. There has always been tension between Washington and London about how much the United States shares with Britain on that front, but, really, it is hardly news.
Without naming names I know people who have been seconded from the Foreign Office to have close encounters with the NSC, if not have an official link with the White House's in-house intelligence op. It's been going on for ages.
There is mention of Afghanistan and Libya in the papers as well, but neither operation is on the scale of the Iraq War and neither are they success stories as in Northern Ireland. The conversations between president and prime minister will be about managing both countries' draw-down of troops in Afghanistan and just how much further to ratchet up NATO's pressure from the air to force Gaddafi to give up power in Libya.
Who will pay for what will be an important part of their conversation as well.
Both countries are still slogging through chest-high mud to get away from the devastating effects of the banking collapse three years ago. Britain's economy has flatlined for the last six months — technically it is not in recession but it is not growing either. The first round of layoffs from austerity cuts began last month so it's not quite clear what is happening in terms of the U.K. unemployment rate.
The U.S. economy is expanding and creating jobs — but not enough to stop the unemployment rate from ticking back upward in April — and the manufacturing jobs being created in many cases pay half what they paid five years ago.
Both leaders know that it is very hard to sell their publics on billions in aid to Afghanistan or Libya when there is so much economic pain at home. It is likely that the president will call on European institutions to take the lead in reconstruction and development aid around North Africa.
If there is an Obama doctrine when it comes to the Arab Middle East it is that Europe must take the operational lead whether it is NATO's no-fly campaign, or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development aiding democracy-building activities. This mean aiding development of a non-corrupt economy for Egypt and physically replacing the antiquated and bomb-destroyed infrastructure of Libya.
Reporters are being briefed that the men will also concentrate on domestic economic issues. Britain is a major overseas investor in the United States. A British government website notes that British firms are responsible for 1 million jobs in America with an average salary of $70,000.
If there is any real anticipation around this trip it will be over the president's speech in Westminster Hall. DeGaulle, the Pope and Mandela were major figures of the 20th century; Obama's historical status is secure but his achievements two-and-half-years into his presidency fall well short of his predecessors at the lectern.
So why was he given this honor?
Britain is a country that loves spoken rhetoric and Obama's ability to give a great speech is unquestioned. At the top of his game, the president generates the energy of a rock star and can dazzle any audience with the flow of his words, the thought that undergirds them and his vocal moves.
But since he burst on the scene at the 2004 Democratic convention it is clear that Obama is more Bob Dylan than Bruce Springsteen when it comes to performance: Bruce always gives everything he's got to his audience, with Dylan you never know what you're going to get. It is the same with Obama.
Let's hope that the setting inspires him to emulate the Boss rather than the Septuagenarian.