Andrew Grice: Bush – and a leader running out of time?

As he heads to the US, Gordon Brown has more in common with the President than he would like
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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown may find he has more in common with George Bush than he expected when he travels to the United States tonight for a four-day visit.

Second-term American presidents often struggle to head off the charge that they are a "lame duck" as their time in office runs out.

Remarkably, only nine months after becoming Prime Minister, Mr Brown has been hit by a wave of speculation that his days in power are numbered.

So he will be keen to issue a "business as usual" message on his trip. It will also be "strictly business", not a foreign jaunt as the voters back home feel the effects of the economic chill. In fact, he will use his visit to address the root cause of the global credit crunch when he meets financiers on Wall Street.

Privately, the Prime Minister might have hoped his trip would look beyond the Bush era. He will meet Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who are vying for the Democratic Party nomination and John McCain, the Republican Party's standard-bearer. He will remain neutral, giving each contender a 45-minute slot, even though his links with the Clinton clan are closer. On his last visit to America, he squeezed in a secret meeting with Bill Clinton.

He will make a speech in Boston on the need to reform international institutions such as the United Nations and World Bank. His aides admit that progress will be limited until we enter the "world after Bush" but he is trying to build as much consensus as possible this year in the hope of making swift progress when the next president takes over.

He is expected to appeal to the US, urging it to re-engage with the world in the way it did after the Second World War, saying its "values and leadership" are needed as much as ever.

However, his visit may be dominated by more immediate concerns – notably on the global economy and, when he visits the UN in New York, the post-election crisis in Zimbabwe.

And he will still have plenty of unfinished business with President Bush when they have dinner at the

White House. They could face an awkward discussion over Iraq, after reports that US troops had to help Iraqi forces suppress the insurgency in Basra while British forces remained largely holed up at Basra airport.

Although Mr Brown delayed plans to reduce of the 4,100-strong contingent of British troops in the Basra region by 1,500 by this spring, President Bush may be uneasy about them remaining on the sidelines.

In public, the two leaders will also want to dispel the impression that they are pulling in different directions in Afghanistan. Suggestions from Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, that it might be necessary to talk to the Taliban raised eyebrows in Washington.

On his first visit to the US as Prime Minister last July, Mr Brown distanced himself from the close personal relationship that Tony Blair enjoyed with President Bush, while talking up the historic bonds between their two nations. The phrase "special relationship" is not used by the Brown administration. The US is still Britain's "most important bilateral relationship" but Americans know something has changed.

Mr Brown is not as well known in America as his predecessor, Tony Blair.

Although a beaming Mr Brown made a surprise appearance on the US talent show American Idol last week, his trip may not necessarily raise his profile.It coincides with a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the US, only the second time a pontiff has visited the White House. The Pope will also visit the UN but is not scheduled to meet Mr Brown.

Mr Brown's new approach to US relations emerged after four hours of one-to-one talks at the President's Camp David retreat last July. He pointedly failed to return the personal compliments President Bush paid to him and made clear Britain would not delay its exit from Iraq just to show unity with America. Recent events in Basra have called that pledge into question.