As British media and political analysts question whether Britain and the U.S. have lost their "special relationship" status, President Obama is rolling out the red carpet — literally — and scheduling plenty of quality time with British Prime Minister David Cameron during his visit here this week.
Obama's talks with Cameron on Wednesday are expected to include the fallout from Sunday's killings of up to 16 Afghanistan civilians by a U.S. soldier. Afghanistan was already high on the leaders' agenda, including plans by the U.S. and allies to turn over security responsibilities to the Afghan government in 2014.
Obama and Cameron plan to travel to Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday to watch a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament.
Meanwhile, first lady Michelle Obama has invited the prime minister's wife, Samantha, to take part in a mini-Olympics event with Washington-area schoolchildren — a bit of homage to the Brits, who will be hosting the 2012 Summer Games. The two will also host a barbecue for U.S. and British troops.
On Wednesday, the president and prime minister will huddle in the Oval Office, where —in addition to the war in Afghanistan and Sunday's shooting — they're likely to discuss Iran's suspected nuclear program, the precarious situation in Syria and the European financial crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will host a luncheon for Cameron, and Obama will honor him with a state dinner that night, beginning with a red-carpet entrance at the White House.
"There's a strong working relationship, and actually even a strong personal bond, between Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama they'll cultivate during this visit and during these meetings," says Josh Earnest, deputy White House press secretary.
Cameron, 45, who leads Britain's Conservative Party, and Obama come from ideologically different traditions. Their differences are most apparent in their approaches to the global financial crisis: Obama has pushed for stimulus and slow deficit cutting, while Cameron has embraced tougher austerity measures in the United Kingdom.
Some experts who follow the Anglo-U.S. relationship say the connection between the two nations has shifted as Britain's power globally has diminished.
"The policy elites in Britain would like to still believe there is a special relationship between the U.S. and Britain," says Mark Blyth, professor of political economy at Brown University in Providence. "The American focus has shifted toward Germany and the eurozone and away from the so-called special relationship with Britain."
On perhaps the two biggest national security questions — Iran's nuclear program and winding down the Afghanistan War — there's no difference in the views of the two leaders, says Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. Britain and the U.S. also closely coordinated their efforts in establishing a NATO-led no-fly zone over Libya and assisting rebels there last year in an operation that helped lead to the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
Even so, Gardiner laments that the relationship has diminished from the close partnerships that Ronald Reagan and Thatcher had during the Cold War, or George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair shared during the Iraq War and in the aftermath of 9/11.
"On the surface, the relations are very cordial, but behind the scenes, this is not a very close partnership," Gardiner says of Cameron and Obama.
Early in Cameron's term, Obama and the prime minister were at odds as Cameron pushed to protect the British oil company BP from excessive claims for compensation following the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and resisted calls from U.S. lawmakers to launch an inquiry into the release by Scotland of Abdel Baset Ali Megrahi, the Libyan who was convicted in the 1988 Pan-Am flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.
"There were some real strains in the relationship, and they had a bumpy beginning initially," says Heather Conley, Europe analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "but clearly there was a lot of communication in Operation Unified Protector in Libya. … On Iran, they're in lockstep, and there is close coordination on Syria."
And recently, Obama named Cameron in a Time magazine interview as one of a handful of world leaders with whom he has a "lot of trust and confidence."