My favourite Obama remark came when a female reporter asked him if he’d worked up a sweat during a gym workout. ‘Do I look like I sweat?’ he retorted. Up close Obama is sleek and poised, with the hint of a swagger held in check by his self-awareness, morphing into aloofness because, ‘I like to think before I speak.’
The quickest way to annoy white liberals in Washington is to speculate that Barack Obama was so electable because he is a stealth African-American. He is not the son of slaves, nor was he actively involved in the civil rights movement. As he explains in his first autobiography, he did not feel defined by his race during his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia by a white mother and grandparents. Only in adolescence did he realise that skin colour was an issue, prompting the voyage of discovery about what it would mean, which took him to be a ‘community organiser’ on the South Side of Chicago. White liberals would have you believe that a post-racial President means a post-racial America. And having been forced to deliver his impressive race speech during the campaign by the views of his ex-pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama recently slapped down a reporter who raised the issue. But his Attorney General Eric Holder (the first African-American to hold the post) accused his country of ‘cowardice’ on the issue, pointing out that friends and colleagues at work seldom mix across ethnic lines out of hours.
Holder’s argument is lived out in the changes on the city streets since I first came to Washington as a student in 1980. Then my digs were on 14th St, the seedy but alluring frontier between white and black Washington. Today the area is a hip party neighbourhood with bars named after St Exupéry — but the young faces you see thronging the clubs are almost all white. Indeed, yuppification, often pioneered by affluent gays, has pushed all the way into the historic Shaw district, birthplace of the late Duke Ellington (who is commemorated on DC’s new quarter coin in the States series). The District of Columbia’s African-American population has dropped from over 60 per cent to just 52 per cent.
Asked by Westminster colleagues how I am enjoying myself, I honed a facetious reply: ‘At least I don’t have to do stories about Jacqui Smith.’ Of course, on a brief trip back home for the G20, there was no avoiding shaming tales of the Home Secretary and other MPs milking their expense accounts. US Members of Congress are much better paid (as I believe MPs should be) — $174,000 a year for Representatives and Senators — and better resourced — up to 18 staff in the House and 60 in the Senate. Audited expenses are limited to travel and communications and outside earnings are generally limited to 15 per cent of salary. Modest pensions are linked to age and years of service. There’s no claiming for bathplugs but then Congressmen face the verdict of their electorates every two years.
Actually Ms Smith did come to Washington in the administration’s first 100 days, as did the Prime Minister and Defence, Environment, Northern Ireland and Foreign Secretaries — twice in David Miliband’s case. The Home Secretary’s was a red-eye trip — in and out within 24 hours. It can’t have been much fun. She was the only minister who declined to tell the public what her visit had achieved.
The task of arranging and hosting these visits falls to the ambassador and his team. As always, there are said to be ‘mutterings’ against the current ambassador — too Blairite, it is said, for the likings of either David Cameron or Gordon Brown, who toyed with appointing Baroness Scotland. The mutterers should be quiet. From Brown down, Sir Nigel Sheinwald has skilfully secured levels of access well above the UK’s natural punching weight.
The Obama Team has simply accepted that the US relation-ship with Britain is one of unique closeness — ‘kinship’ is the word Obama uses. It wasn’t always so: Reagan, Bush Sr, even Clinton all considered rebalancing relations with Europe. Many will question whether such a reflexive ‘special relationship’ is desirable, but from the first Gulf war to Afghanistan, the ‘blood price’, as Tony Blair once called it, has bought back something.
When I left to cover the President’s European trip, the gorgeous house we are renting in Georgetown was a beauty spot for passing photographers because of the two huge magnolias — gloriously in flower — flanking the ‘front yard’. Back a week later, the purple blooms strew the footpath and I’ve missed the cherry blossom festival on the Mall. At least the rain will perk up Michelle Obama’s new vegetable garden on the White House lawn.
Adam Boulton is the political editor of Sky News and has been in Washington covering Obama’s first 100 days.