A “chuffed to bits” President Barack Obama gushed over British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday, but deepening world crises conspired to darken a warm welcome for a special ally.
Obama went out of his way to hail America’s “indispensable” relationship with Britain, even offering to learn the rules of cricket, gifting his guest a top of the range American grill, and laying on a sumptuous state dinner.
But both men were forced to dwell on the terrible human costs of war, with sharp questions looming about the justification for more combat in Afghanistan and the possibility of new Middle East combat over Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama and Cameron conspicuously used a joint press conference to try to convince weary American and British voters that recent sacrifices in Afghanistan had wrought “real progress” towards a future secure state.
The US leader went on the record for the first time to back NATO’s planned transfer to a support role in 2013 before a full withdrawal the next year, though said there would be no sudden unscheduled drawdowns in coming months.
He also used the press conference in an unseasonably warm White House Rose Garden, with cherry blossoms in full bloom, to deliver a clear, and stiffened warning to Iran — take new nuclear talks seriously, as time is running out.
But the elaborately choreographed event, from a 19-gun salute to Cameron to the state dinner, was about celebrating an alliance forged in war that endures.
“Through the grand sweep of history, through all its twists and turns, there is one constant: the rock-solid alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom,” said Obama.
Both men quipped about the time in 1814 when the British sent a colonial army to burn down the White House.
“They made quite an impression — they really lit up the place,” Obama said.
Cameron gazed across ranks of troops in ceremonial dress on the White House lawn and joked: “You’re clearly not taking any risks with the Brits this time.”
Obama also lapsed into some cliche British vernacular, telling Cameron he was “chuffed to bits” to welcome him for a “good natter” and wanted to keep the US-British relationship in a “top notch” state.
After their trip to a college basketball game in Ohio on Monday, Cameron said he would get his own back by taking Obama to a cricket match, prompting a wide presidential grin.
The visit gave Obama a brief respite from the grind of a crisis-scarred presidency and allowed him to underline his credentials as a statesman as he cranks up the pace of his reelection effort.
Cameron may have enjoyed the trip even more as his coalition government is slogging through a grim period of fiscal austerity and with stagnant growth threatening to plunge Britain back into recession.
He also became the first world leader hosted by Obama on his iconic Air Force One jet, in a piece of statecraft that contrasted with the rocky start to US-Britain relations under Obama and former British leader Gordon Brown.
In return, Cameron delivered what appeared to be very much like an endorsement as the president heads into a tough reelection fight in November.
“The first president I studied in school was Theodore Roosevelt,” Cameron said.
“He talked of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. That is Barack’s approach, and in following it he has pressed the reset button on the moral authority of the entire free world.”
Obama and wife Michelle presented Cameron and wife Samantha with a customized wood and charcoal burning grill, with a retail value of $1,895, complete with US and British flags, a personalized plaque and two personalized chefs jackets for the Camerons, the White House said.
The Camerons repaid the compliment by gifting the Obamas a table tennis table.
Later, the couples, top British and US actors, and foreign policy and military top brass sat down for an ornate state dinner in an air conditioned white marquee erected on the south lawn of the White House.
Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert, Earl of Grantham, in British drama Downtown Abbey, which has been a huge hit on US public PBS television, was a big draw at the dinner.
So was American actress Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Bonneville’s on-screen wife in the show, along with world number one golfer Rory McIlroy, Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney and tycoon Sir Richard Branson.
The main course at the dinner was Bison Wellington, billed as a fusing of a classic British dish with a meaty US heartland base.
All of the food was to be washed down by American wines.