Yes We Can (Bash Obama): UK Anger Over Obama’s Assault on BP

Remember John McCain’s “Obama fame” epiphany during the 2008 presidential elections? His negative ad pegged Obama as out of touch and the “world’s biggest celebrity”, pejoratively splicing in clips of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton with crowd shots of Obama rallies as the Democratic contender drew record numbers both at home and internationally.  Reactions abounded. Paris Hilton struck back with this parody ad about the “wrinkly white haired guy”, the “oldest celebrity in the world”.  The media was abuzz as, at least temporarily, the message of Obama’s supposedly counterproductive celebrity seemed to stick with some voters. But ultimately the roadblock proved incapable of doing any real damage and the young Democrat rode his wave of popularity all the way to a very decisive November 4th win.  The raw celebratory energy worldwide was palpable.  Gone was the bumbling, trigger-happy Texan who had infuriated world citizenry with his failure of a foreign policy and the near-sighted disaster of an economic policy that had brought the world to its knees. Impossibly high expectations and desperate hopes for something far better were pinned on the new guy. Conservatives prayed for the bubble to burst while liberals crossed themselves, willing global patience with the new administration.

Skip to the present.  As fickle as the American electorate can be, and despite his substantial drop in domestic popularity, Obama’s international celebrity and popularity have remained high.  While American memory of the blunders of his predecessor may be fading, international scars are still keenly felt and there’s still much hope in the new president.  Cracks are appearing though.  Take recent daggers thrown in the UK over the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.  Conservative UK commentator, Norman Tebbit, recently called Obama’s approach to the BP disaster a “crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan political presidential petulance.”

The source of UK anger against Obama stems from what is seen as an overly aggressive stance against BP.  Tebbit’s rant finds at least partial backing in some of Obama’s BP-related posturing:

“crude” = “I don’t sit around talking to experts because this is a college seminar… we talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.” (Obama’s June 8 NBC interview)

“bigoted” = The relentless attacks on Obama’s attacks on BP as the disaster spirals completely out of control and Obama plays into British accusations of of “‘buck passing’ and ‘beating up’ the British-based company” (Daily Mail) instead of problem-solving.

“xenophobic” – Obama’s occasional use of the name “British Petroleum” that BP dropped years ago and therefore (it can be argued), playing this up as an issue with Britain when really this is the mistake of a multinational, a large stake of which is American.

“Winding up a hate campaign against the British is not a terribly smart policy. It may win Mr. Obama political support amongst the less well-informed voters right now, but the long-term effects are less sure. BP is also a major US company. Busting it might not be a very smart idea and not just on economic grounds. The message that non-US companies are likely to be treated as political punchbags would be a profoundly political message, too.”  (Tebbit)

Joining the ranks of political malcontents, Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, said that he was concerned about “anti-British rhetoric” and “name-calling” from American leaders.   And it’s not just a few oversensitive conservative politicos that are pissy: the UK’s Sunday Times quoted a survey that stated 64% of Brits and 47% of US residents claim Obama’s handling of the BP crisis hurt the relationship between the two countries and that in both countries, 22% of respondents went as far as calling Obama anti-British.

As exciting as this rift-rhetoric can be, much of the Anglo-American hand-wringing about it took place before a June 12 conversation in which Obama tried to soften the perceived attack on Britain over the disaster by saying that his unhappiness with BP had nothing to do with its British identity. Following the conversation, The Times‘s journalist Giles Whittel wrote: “The notion that American attacks on BP are anti-British is embarrassing. It is a fiction incubated by the thin-skinned, solipsistic and broadly anti- American world view that bubbles up like warm bitter in the best-kept villages of Little England whenever anyone in Washington has the temerity to break with the tradition of referring to the Old Country and its pretensions with anything other than awed admiration.”

Further evidence that Obama wanted to make peace?  He put beer on the table.  The trick worked a year ago when Obama invited black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and white Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley to the White House for a beer after causing an uproar by saying the police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates, Jr. for disorderly conduct. This time around, Obama and Cameron wagered a beer over who would win the June 12 US/England World Cup game.  When the teams tied, the politicos presented each other with their respective beers and gushed about the special relationship between the two countries.

There’s even a chance that the Anglo-American relationship will improve after the BP fiasco.  The evidence? Obama’s gift-giving is improving.  A beer far outshines his last gift to a British PM.  In exchange for an ornate pen holder from former PM Gordon Brown, Obama presented the British leader with a set of DVDs that don’t even work in British players.

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Bjorn Karlman


43 thoughts on “Yes We Can (Bash Obama): UK Anger Over Obama’s Assault on BP”

  1. What I find disappointing is that, like George W. Bush, Barack H. Obama bases his relationships with countries in large part to his impression of their leaders, for example he scorned Gordon Brown repeatedly (not taking phone calls and gift gaffes) over Brown’s known preference for Hillary during the election.

    What I found embarrassing was when Obama said he was looking into ‘whose ass to kick’. I guess that, like his insult to the Boston Police Department Obama’s gone to sharing a beer with someone he made macho comments about… that’s how he makes amends apparently. The question is, does Cameron enjoy a secret smoke like Obama does?

  2. If I’m reading this correctly, you are trying to indicate that this British/US rift is no big deal; and that Obama has not, by default, lost his ability to influence on the international stage. You may be right in terms of the BP situation, but I think in the larger context you have to admit he’s taken some serious blows.

    Take the G-20 summit. You have a situation here where many of the larger world economies ignored and/or told the US to mind its own business. First off we have China which days before the G-20 decided to allow its currency to float (though ever so slightly). It was a perfect way to make sure the US was muted on the topic. You may think this was a victory for Obama that China decided to “float” the RMB, but remember the US wants the RMB to be revalued, a float could very well mean that the RMB could devalue versus the dollar. Should at some point the dollar continue to strengthen against the Euro, this devaluation could very well occur. I have a feeling the Obama administration wanted a peg change, not a float. Second off we have the EU which came into the meeting stating that austerity was the path they were on and left without changing their opinion on the matter, ignoring Obama’s call for additional stimulus. You may argue that Obama is right in following a Keynesian path but Europe isn’t buying it.

    One side note: I think you will find that the Japanese were also irritated in terms of how Obama went after Toyota. So the Brits aren’t the only ones that are “thin-skinned.”

  3. Ha! I didn’t know that that was part of the reason he would snub Brown… just thought it was an overall reflection of his take on the “special relationship” with the UK.. and you found the “ass” comment embarrassing? I thought it was refreshing… the guy is too polished.. he needs a little Biden in him. As for the smoking… there is no victory cigar for either country after this World Cup…

  4. Duane, you’ve got to find the fun in politics. No, I do not think that the spat was a big deal… the conservative UK politicos quoted had one side of the story and it may hold some validity but both countries are too obsessed with their “special relationship” to let the worst oil spill ever get between them.

    And interesting points RE the G-20. I don’t think that there is any doubt that American influence is gradually waning… What I would say is that a stronger China and an out-of-control Greece influenced the perceived snubbing of Obama more than any shortcomings or loss of influence on his part…

  5. I don’t know about you Bjorn (we’ve both spent considerable amount of time in both countries) but it’s my impression that the “special relationship” is a peculiarly British obsession that gets far less hand-wringing in the US.

  6. Fair point Johnny… there is less American obsession about the “special relationship”.. but there is some truth to Jeremy Brooks’ joke that there is a love/hate relationship between the US and the UK – the Americans love the Brits and the Brits hate the Yanks…

    America may not attach as much meaning to the term “special relationship” but they do have a serious soft spot for their former colonizers…

  7. Hi Bjorn! great article,
    What surprises me is that Obama himself has declared the oil spill a national disaster, a threat to the USA and being so it has been left entirely to a foreign/transnational corporation. There was no one and there is no one as far as I can see on the field to represent the national interests of US, specifically for example in determining critical points such as number of outflows points and rate of outflow oil. In view of the above I would tend to believe that the path taken is basically deflecting attention from grave issues which are still unresolved.

  8. All Europeans, the French especially, worry constantly over their relevance in the world. The British do too… they always talk about whether or not their “special relationship” with America is anything more than their following our lead.

    Lots of commentary with this Chilcot Inquiry over whether or not Blair actually had any effect on American plans for war with his push for UN permission. Then again the same is said stateside about Colin Powell…

    One thing’s for sure… American’s don’t worry over their relevance or import to, or impact on, Britain.

  9. The Democrat Party looked worse in 2004 than the Republican Party looks now in 2010.

    The chairman has ZERO influence on national or local political trends. Howard Dean was seen as a total bumbling fool at the beginning of his stint as DNC chair, but it didn’t matter. If the trend is there, then the chairman doesn’t matter. And American’s don’t like double dip recessions.

  10. Quite.. the post-colonial era is miserable… kind of like being an ex-president… the glory days are behind are you and no matter how many goodwill trips you make.. you will never drive the global agenda again

  11. Well put Daniel, there’s no doubt that Obama is needing to deflect attention from the lack of solutions coming from the White House… to be fair to him though, he did send over the Energy Secretary, Steven Chu and his dream team of experts to help find a solution… and then there’s this stuff http://www.whitehouse.gov/deepwater-bp-oil-spill/ that is offered to victims/locals

  12. It just seems to me that Britain, despite (or perhaps because?) its rancourous debates in parliament has politicians that are more adroit and/or polished when it comes to policy than America. I mean a politician as ugly as Brown would never be elected in America.

    And actually that’s one of the things that disappointed me most about the recent election in the UK… so many pundits here were calling Gordon Brown “weird” because of his smile or his eye… even politicians… I saw that as a sign of the Americanising of British politics in a bad way.. the emergence of politicians gifted in public perception than policy.

    A lot of people have spilt a lot of ink trying to discover if Barack Obama is gifted or not… one things for sure… gaffes like this aren’t funny, they’re sad. It brings down the level of discourse and shapes the expectations of the electorate negatively.

    That was true for Brown when his mic was left on in the car and it’s true for Obama when he makes these big-man macho comments. And that’s why I’m embarrassed by these incidents. And we can blame the media as much as the politicians themselves for this… there have always been gaffes but the gaffes haven’t always been the story.

    Bottom line, these incidents and how they’re reported detract from the real issues and create the very cynics Obama did so well to inspire.

    Thanks for reading my long comment! I enjoy observing politics on this side of the pond and appreciate your thoughts on this.

  13. Yeah, I am not going to defend Howard Dean… that would be tough.. and Steele simply amuses me… I hope he sticks around, without him and Biden, this world would be a darker place.. and yes, the Republicans will regain a lot of lost ground in November… my question is where will they go with it? They seem directionless.

  14. Good thoughts… and I’m with you… politics should not boil down to aesthetic/cosmetic issues or stupid gaffes.. but politics will always include incredibly pettiness… it’s unfortunate on the one hand but pretty amusing on the other… if it were all about serious, weighty issues Radio 4/FOX/MSNBC would be out of business…. I know, what a tragedy, huh?

  15. Gratifyingly, Norman Tebbit (crude, bigoted and xenophobic, himself), Boris Johnson and the Daily Mail do not reflect the views of the majority of Brits, despite what the Times might lead us to believe.

  16. They only seem directionless because you don’t like what Republicans stand for and because they have no power right now.

    So for instance, all Republicans have clearly argued they want more tax cuts and less spending. That is pretty clearly not directionless. It could only be characterized that way if one were to think those were bad ideas.

    I think Obama’s economic plan is completely directionless for instance. It certainly hasn’t gotten us anywhere so far. However, he is only directionless in a sense. He has a direction, it is just that his direction is so bad (in my opinion) that it isn’t a direction worth having.

  17. Good post! It’s been a while since I’ve commented so my apologies for the length. I think the Obama admin. had way too much faith in the rest of the bureaucracy that they’d do what they could to get it done quickly without feeling his immediate presence. (like they should have learned their lesson after Katrina) If I remember correctly, they were focused on their (now canceled for the 2nd time) trip to Asia/Australia and various senate confirmations. I really think the only reason why BP has taken a huge chunk of the criticism is because the other two companies involved, Halliburton and the one that slips my mind currently, deflected their blame immediately—though I think BP should take Halliburton down and make both companies pay up alongside them. Obama succumbed to the 24 hour news people needing to make a story and had to show how pissed off he was, rather than be his usual measured self. If my legacy was quickly being covered by never-ending gushing oil, I’d be upset too. I just think he should have channeled it better.

    In regards to the “special relationship”—I think the Bush admin. exploited and manipulated our ties with the UK, acted like we were best friends but disrespectfully called all the shots and didn’t really return favors. So yeah, when Obama became president, of course it would look like there was some cooling off; his initial interests were on rebuilding our image to the rest of the world and strengthen our ties with other allies (but not cutting anyone out). (on a side note, Johnny mentioned the Brown/Obama relationship as being strained—back when Obama visited the UK and Germany during the election race, Brown made no effort to hide how unprepared naïve he thought Obama was. Though Cameron and Obama seemed awfully chummy during their first meeting.) It was really frustrating to go back and forth from Newbold (during the buildup to invade Iraq) and hear many conservative Americans be indignant that the UK should do what we ‘needed’ them to do, and yet, not care about the protests or the general feeling of resentment, which is still there. So over the past few years, Americans have done a fair amount of hand wringing because of our brash behavior. (And how many of us were called un-American for being concerned with what other countries thought of us? maybe not enough, but it was a lot).

    I think the BP issue is a lack of compartmentalization. For instance, when we travel, Americans fear that people will be rude to them/hate them just for being American. Everywhere I’ve been it’s made clear to me that they have no issue with me, a lot of the time they really like American people and stuff, just not my government/president. So now it’s flipped. We take issue with BP—which we see as a corporation (and yes, there were some idiots who unwisely called it British Petroleum),something Americans aren’t too fond of right now, but there’s no issue with the British people or government. I suppose if any American does get weirdly anti-British/Rest of the World over this issue instead of being frustrated over corporate inadequacy, I’d just remind them of Bhopal.

  18. Thanks for the thoughts Alyssa, you obviously have a background in both countries! I’ll start with your last point: Bhopal. It certainly puts things in perspective for those that want to get nationalistic or xenophobic about corporate-driven disasters. I am glad you thought to mention it.

    As for Obama’s response, there is never going to be a perfect response… the “measured” temperament that you mention is obviously both a blessing and a curse… I remember the campaign days when “No Drama Obama” was being critiqued… it is not the raw emotionalism that people expect in some situations… but I am convinced that the long terms benefits of his levelheadedness will pay off… they already have when you think of his biggest brawls – the election, health care and (increasingly) economic recovery…

    I have often wondered about Obama’s real sentiments RE the UK. They are, at best, unclear. There’s a passage in Dreams From My Father where he describes a conversation with a young Brit – I think it is on the plane to Kenya… not extremely flattering. I sometimes wonder what he was trying to say by including that passage. But you are right, his relationship with Cameron is clearly a positive one so there is probably no great threat in store for the “special relationship”.

    And finally… being an American globetrotter is, like you say, not as scary as people make it out to be. I have very rarely seen any verbal attacks on Americans purely based on national identity… most fights I’ve seen have been over the politics of individual Americans and their sparring partners

  19. Kate, thanks for the British input… And yes, good to know that Tebbit and Johnson do not speak for the average Brit. Tebbit’s outburst did seem somewhat of a desperate attention-grab. As for the special relationship, I have rarely heard British friends place much value on it so I am always surprised when Anglo-American tension is played up like a potential disaster..

  20. I see what you are saying David, and I could see why someone would call the opposing party directionless simply because of a disagreement about what to prioritize. My thing is that apart from the usual talking points of tax cuts and fiscal prudence, I see very little innovation coming from the Republicans… perhaps it is because they are not in the spotlight as much… buy perhaps it is because they are so severely fragmented. I think what I am most interested in is how the Tea Party will influence the November elections… I am sure it will but I genuinely am stumped as to how.

  21. The party is definitely fragmented, but you have to remember that a lot of people (myself included) vote Republican in hopes that they do as little as possible.

  22. Looks like the comment thread is running out…

    “but you have to remember that a lot of people (myself included) vote Republican in hopes that they do as little as possible.”

    hmmm… I guess I am still trying to get my head around the concept of this extraordinary conservative faith in the private sector… I mean I know that it works to a certain extent in business problem-solving but when it comes to social problems, I feel like they just get worse without government help – that’s why I want more involved government

  23. You are asking the wrong questions from a conservative perspective. It isn’t what policy is the most effective in creating Utopia, it is what is constitutional and what provides the most freedom. If a person wants to change something they should either do it themselves or do it at the local or state level rather than pushing their morals down the throats of the whole country.

  24. I’m not particulaly political so a brief comment from me is that I agree with Tebbit, especially given the company is more American than British (in terms of who owns it) and the complexity of who’s at blame anyway (American companies responsible for the building etc).

    However, anything that causes international division – especially childish finger-pointing like this – is very old world. This is an international problem brought on by an international company and it needs an interntional solution and that can only be brought about by international cooperation which, oddly enough, requires international respect.

    As a Brit I’m still a huge Obama fan and suspect he is just doing what he has to do and saying what he has to say to win the support of a significantly Anti-British populace. I think a country which has no shame in producing films like U-571 is the underlying bigger problem here!

  25. “If a person wants to change something they should either do it themselves or do it at the local or state level rather than pushing their morals down the throats of the whole country.” – I actually agree. This makes a lot of sense David, especially when it comes to legislating morality. I’m with you…

  26. Very well put Sam, it’s unfortunate that Obama has to take the populist stance on this one. His larger agenda does seem to fall in line with the broadly diplomatic goals he campaigned on though so hopefully there is more international cooperation/respect in the pipeline:)

  27. All laws are morality calls. Helping the poor, ending discrimination, recognizing marriage is between one man and one woman…it is all the same moral crap.

  28. Except, making abortion illegal, for example, is legislating a morality that disallows alternative behavior and the reverse allows for more options to allow for personal choice… I am against the former, where morality is tied to religious conviction and is often very restrictive/dogmatic

  29. “you should write about the xenophobes in France and Belgium banning the burqa.” …. hmmm.. yeah, that sounds like a good post if I could find an appropriate American tie-in…

  30. So in other words, you like legislating morality if you agree with it. That is petty and double talk if you don’t mind me saying so.

  31. And BTW, fighting poverty restricts me and my family much more than any law against abortion. I would trade ending the war on poverty for ending the war on baby killing any day of the week. I have come to grips that abortion is just humanities natural selection.

  32. And the war on poverty started out as a religious thing, so I see no difference between fighting poverty and fighting abortion in terms of religiousness being forced on others.

  33. The metaphors are pulverized, but I like the vocab and vitriol:

    “The notion that American attacks on BP are anti-British is embarrassing. It is a fiction incubated by the thin-skinned, solipsistic and broadly anti- American world view that bubbles up like warm bitter in the best-kept villages of Little England whenever anyone in Washington has the temerity to break with the tradition of referring to the Old Country and its pretensions with anything other than awed admiration.”

    “solipsistic” is one of my favorite words!

  34. Yes, I can see why it looks that way, and I am certainly not above slipping into double talk… My main difficulty is when religious convictions slip into legislation…
    Abortion
    Creationism
    Gay rights or lack of
    but you are right, the lines blur and it is hard not to sound petty

  35. Agreed… I find it puzzling that Brits read anything anti-British into American foreign policy/diplomacy… the obsession with which the “special relationship” is defended is both amazing and somewhat disappointing.

  36. In other words, if a person were to say, I want gay rights, the end of creationism, and unrestricted abortion, and in return we will end Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Food Stamps…I would take it. Mostly because gays already have all the rights everyone else has, abortions are as unrestricted as anywhere else in the world, and creationism isn’t taught anywhere (but even if conservatives were ‘winning’ those issues, I would still trade them to end the war on poverty).

    Those issues you listed are fake/boogie men issues as far as I am concerned.

    As for the war on poverty, it is debatable how much we have spent on it so far (8-20 trillion maybe). However, most of what I read seems to agree that other than Social Security, it has been largely ineffective in reducing the rate of poverty. We are spending over $1.5 trillion in 2011 on these programs. I just like to imagine what a business could do with that money. How many jobs would be created or raises could be given to current employees.

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