LONDON — The U.S. presidential contest usually attracts a great deal of interest around the world, especially in Britain. But until this week, that interest had yet to ignite. To be fair, the 2008 race was hard to top as a spectacle value, featuring two potential historic candidates on the Democratic side and the advent of Tea Party dynamo Sarah Palin. But it has still been striking how little interest the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney contest has sparked here in Old Europe. This has changed in a hurry with Romney's arrival in London this week.
The day before Romney's visit, Fleet Street started to take interest. The left-leaning Guardian said Romney is under pressure to define his foreign policy, while the right-of-center Daily Telegraph quoted an anonymous advisor promising Romney would abandon Obama's "coolness" towards London. The unnamed aide also caused a bit of a dust-up by promising to restore the "Anglo-Saxon" relations between the two countries -- a phrase loaded when discussing a president whose Kenyan family lived under British colonialism. Romney may also have offended his hosts by suggesting that Britain may not be quite up to the task of hosting the Olympics, telling reporters before a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron that reports of strikes and trouble with private security firms were "not something which is encouraging." London's voluble mayor Boris Johnson even took to the streets, telling a London crowd, 'There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready? Yes we are!'
Romney remains something of an unknown quantity in Britain. Like many U.S. presidential challengers, the former Massachusetts governor is a neophyte on foreign affairs. And his visits to what his advisors are calling three key allies -- Britain, Israel and Poland -- are an attempt to burnish his international credentials with hosts who are guaranteed not to embarrass him and give him a polite, warm reception. The timing of the London stop has the added benefit of invoking Romney's successful management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. So, as the British public finally begins to tune in to the great race across the pond, what do they see?
With the possible exception of George W. Bush in 2004, presidential incumbents have had a built-in advantage with Britons, as the old maxim "better the devil you know" tends to apply to foreign governments and media. This goes double for Obama: When he came into office three and a half years ago, he had an extraordinarily high approval rating abroad. Most British papers -- even the conservative ones -- greeted his 2008 win as historic. The Guardian fulsomely praised the result, writing at the time, "[T]he American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world."
But Obama's primary advantage back then -- not being Bush -- has lost some of its effectiveness this time around. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, published last month, shows that approval of the president's policies is declining in most of the world. The fall has been most pronounced in China and in Muslim countries, but there have also been significant drops in Europe and Japan, where confidence in him as an individual remains relatively robust. In Britain, opposition to drone strikes against terrorist suspects outweighs support, and approval of the United States generally, though still higher than under Bush, is down from Obama's early days.
For much of the British press, Obama got off to a bumpy start because of his decision to give back -- or not renew the loan of -- the Winston Churchill bust lent to the White House after 9/11. Many commentators chose to interpret this as a sign of anti-British sentiment from the half-Kenyan president, and the Daily Telegraph took to publishing an annual list of Obama's top 10 insults against Britain (if you're wondering, No. 1 so far for 2012 is "Siding with Argentina over the Falklands"). Still, Cameron has been keen to cultivate good relations. When the Obamas came on a state visit last year, for instance, it was all smiles, and they even joined together in hosting a barbecue for British servicemen in the garden of No. 10 Downing St. And on Cameron's return visit to the United States this year, the two men were shown sharing jokes and enjoying each other's company at a basketball game in Ohio.