The long goodbyes of Obama, Blair and Cameron, and the curse of political lame-duckery

Obama is a little ahead of Cameron on the exit ramp, and Cameron must be watching how he manages it with interest

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The most remarkable thing a politician said last week was: “As I wind down my presidency...”. Barack Obama, interviewed by Jon Sopel for the BBC, began by listing his reasons for visiting Kenya this weekend. “As I wind down my presidency, I’ve already had a number of visits to Africa, but this gives me an opportunity to focus on a region that I have not been visiting as President,” he said. 

Can you imagine a British prime minister saying something like that? It’s not the acceptance that his White House stint is coming to an end that shocks, but the admission that his power is waning. It is like putting an “out of office” reply on your emails saying, “I’m off on holiday soon, so don’t expect an early reply”. And Obama still has another 18 months to go, half of John F Kennedy’s entire time in the job.

Naturally, the United States’ long-established fixed terms and two-term limit mean that a presidential  end-date, and therefore constitutional lame-duckery, are well worn into the assumptions of the system. But we have started to experiment with time limits here. Tony Blair first said he would do three terms but not four, and then David Cameron said he would do two terms but not three – although his were longer, five-year terms.

Blair tried to remain hyperactive until the end. Although everyone knew that power was seeping from him and towards Gordon Brown, he refused to acknowledge it and spent much of his final year setting out five-year plans, which irritated his successor. Soon Cameron will have to manage speculation about exactly when before the next election he will stand down, as promised from his Oxfordshire kitchen to the BBC’s James Landale, who tried to hide his excitement at the scoop by fiddling with some vegetable or other.

Indeed, the Prime Minister might have to manage the speculation (from me) that he might change his mind about stepping down before the next election. On current trends, it doesn’t look as if the Labour Party is going to put up much of a fight, so you can imagine Cameron having second thoughts. As he entertained Westminster journalists in the garden of No 10 last week, he looked as fresh-faced as ever, invigorated by the youth-giving elixir of election victory.

Look out over the next year or so, then, for signs that Cameron is mentally “winding down”. Another telling thing that Obama said in last week’s interview was his reply when Sopel put a homophobic comment from William Ruto, deputy president of Kenya, to him: “We have heard that in the US they have allowed gay relations and other dirty things.”

Obama replied: “Yeah. Well, I disagree with him on that, don’t I?” That’s the sort of thing you say as you prepare to leave office. It was only seven years ago that candidate Obama, seeking to win office, publicly opposed gay marriage, contrary to his personal beliefs. ”

It was interesting too, though, that Obama, possibly realising that he had wound down a bit too much, pointed out that he had a “pretty long list” of recent achievements, despite being more than halfway through his second term, and insisted that there was still more to do. Healthcare reform has been secured, relations with Cuba normalised, an Asian trade deal signed and climate change policy agreed with China. Despite the “obstruction” of the Republicans in Congress, Obama said, “the robust exertion of executive authority within the lawful constraints that we operate under is something that we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about”.

Obama and Cameron have been unlikely partners. The President made what might have been another slip in the interview. The usual protocol is to say, as he did, “we don’t have a more important partner than Great Britain”, which means Germany and France are just as important. But when asked if he had put pressure on Cameron to commit to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, Obama said: “I wouldn’t say pressure. I think I had an honest conversation with David that Great Britain has always been our best partner.”

As ever, such things are a verbal game of KerPlunk. Obama repeated his view that Britain should stay in the European Union, which could be helpful to Cameron in the referendum, but if a president is too effusive about a British PM the whole marble-drop of poodleism comes crashing down, as it did for Blair.

Now, though, Obama is a little ahead of Cameron on the exit ramp, and Cameron must be watching how he manages it with interest.

Most coverage of politics is of entrances not exits. We are more interested in the Labour Party electing someone who might, theoretically, become PM in five years’ time than in how Cameron might leave office. Partly, of course, that is because the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn is so unexpected, but endings can be just as important as beginnings.