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Obama’s Win Stirs Cautious Optimism in Britain

November 28, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama's election victory has prompted both excitement and reflection among Britons. Margaret Warner reports on the impact of Mr. Obama's win on Britain's relationship with the U.S. and on British expectations for Mr. Obama's leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: The prospect of Barack Obama as the next American president seems to have captivated Britons from all walks of life, from shopkeeper Elizabeth Rogers…

ELIZABETH ROGERS, Bond Street Print and Gifts: From day one, when he came over to England, I was drawn to him. And I think he’s a lovely chap.

MARGARET WARNER: … to high school student Abdul Hamied.

ABDUL HAMIED, Student: To come from such a poor background and to become one of the most powerful people in the world, it gives us hope for everybody.

MARGARET WARNER: Just as in the states, the president-elect’s youth and multicultural roots have lit a spark. Lavilla Graham was out with her 4-year-old son Amal one Saturday morning.

LAVILLA GRAHAM: I feel that’s a really good thing. Having a mixed-race child, as well, I think it’s a good inspiration for him. So I think it’s good for him.

MARGARET WARNER: A good inspiration for your boy?

LAVILLA GRAHAM: Yes, definitely.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama’s victory has prompted some soul-searching among the British about their own racial divide, says House of Commons M.P. Vincent Cable.

VINCENT CABLE, Member of Parliament, Liberal Democrat: I brought up a multi-racial family, and I’ve seen in my lifetime the position has gradually improved in the U.K. But we know there is a lot of prejudice. And to have the most powerful country in the world electing a black president is a very, very powerful signal, not just to Americans, but to the rest of us.

MARGARET WARNER: Only 15 of Parliament’s 646 members are of minority heritage, yet London cab driver Paul Cakebread thinks it won’t be long before Britain produces an Obama of its own.

PAUL CAKEBREAD, Cab Driver: I think we’re going to see a few people with color coming through, going for prime minister and stuff like that now, yes, definitely, definitely.

MARGARET WARNER: You think because of Obama?

PAUL CAKEBREAD: Yes, definitely. Now it’s happened out in America now. I think it’s probably quite a good thing, really.

MARGARET WARNER: But the world looks different from one of London’s multi-ethnic neighborhoods, Brixton.

LAVILLA GRAHAM: Maybe in my son’s lifetime, but not in my lifetime, no. I don’t think so.

MARGARET WARNER: Why won’t it happen in your lifetime?

LAVILLA GRAHAM: It’s a different type of like system, political system. It’s not easy for black people, mixed-race people, Asian people, you know, ethnic people to make it in this country politically.

America's relationship with Britain

MARGARET WARNER: Writer Gordon Case said the issue is much broader than whether a black could be elected to 10 Downing Street.

GORDON CASE, Writer: It's really, how do we get to the stage where we can open our hearts and minds, right, as the Americans appear to have done?

MARGARET WARNER: And what will an Obama presidency mean for the so-called special relationship between America and Britain? It fell out of favor during George Bush and Tony Blair's partnership on the Iraq war, at least as far as the British public was concerned.

Radio talk show host James Max says there's a lot of repair work to do.

JAMES MAX, Radio Talk Show Host: The British people felt betrayed by what happened in Iraq. I think they felt betrayed by what's happened, financially speaking. And I think there's an enormous amount of trust to be built up again with the British people.

MARGARET WARNER: Restaurant manager Varun J-Sharma said one way Obama can rebuild that trust is to take a more open, nuanced approach to the rest of the world.

VARUN J-SHARMA, Restaurant Manager: I hope it makes America a lot more friendly to the rest of the world. I think they've got a bit of a bad rap for a few years, being a bit of an aggressor and a little bit kind of living by their own rules.

MARGARET WARNER: When Obama came to London in July, he spoke of America and Britain's shared history and said he wanted to strengthen the transatlantic relationship to solve problems together.

Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, thinks the excitement over Obama's election shows there's still a yearning for American leadership.

JONATHAN FREEDLAND, The Guardian: Enthusiasm for America had been pent up for eight years. It's been aching for an outlet. The notion that America should lead again, I think, is very robust, very enduring.

MARGARET WARNER: Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House institute in London, is less optimistic.

ROBIN NIBLETT, Chatham House: At a strategic level, I'm not so sure the relationship can be as special as it was back in those brief moments of heyday that we look back at with sort of slightly rose-tinted glasses.

MARGARET WARNER: Europeans have their own interests, he said, and won't respond to Washington's needs just because Obama asks.

ROBIN NIBLETT: Britain and the rest of Europe are having to define some of their own perspectives on global challenges and to try to find ways to do this right now and not depend just on what a Barack Obama presidency brings to the table.

British expectations for Obama

MARGARET WARNER: In Berlin last July, Obama suggested he'd ask Washington's NATO partners, like France and Germany, to more send combat troops to Afghanistan. Freedland thinks Obama can ask things of European leaders that George W. Bush could not.

JONATHAN FREEDLAND: It will be very difficult for Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel to be on the wrong side of this President Obama without being on the wrong side of their own public opinion.

And I think that gives him enormous leverage. The degree of global goodwill gives him a kind of international political capital which he can really use to his advantage.

MARGARET WARNER: But not on the really tough issues, says Niblett.

ROBIN NIBLETT: It's not the case that European governments are going to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight and defeat the Taliban. There is not the political foundation or the political credibility domestically to send troops to fight the Taliban, even for Barack Obama, in my opinion.


ROBIN NIBLETT: Because people think you can't defeat them militarily.

MARGARET WARNER: Perhaps the sagest comment came from John McFall, a seasoned member of parliament from Scotland.

JOHN MCFALL, Member of Parliament, Labour Party: Well, like many people in Europe, I welcomed the election of Obama to the presidency. But I said to my wife on that night that here is a young man with the responsibility for America, with the cares of the world on his shoulders, and what I don't want to see is, I don't want to see expectations exceed reality.

MARGARET WARNER: In just seven weeks, the British public's expectations for Obama will begin to meet reality.

British officials' confidence

JUDY WOODRUFF: I talked to Margaret in London after she filed that report.

Margaret, that was such an interesting report. What about official Britain? Do government officials there believe they'll be able to work collaboratively with incoming President Obama?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, they do, Judy. And Obama came here in July. He and Gordon Brown have had conversations. And there's every confidence that they can work with him.

It's also going to make it a little easier for the British prime minister to be close to the American president again, because Obama is very popular here, unlike George W. Bush. As you may recall, Tony Blair was mocked here for being Bush's poodle, so Gordon Brown has kept a distance.

Finally, of course, on some of the issues, Obama is actually closer to the Europeans, for instance, the emphasis on combating climate change or keep interest in fighting poverty in Africa.

So I think that, from everything I've heard there, they have every confidence they'll be able to work with him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Margaret, you've spent the last week there reporting on the British and European reaction to the international economic financial crisis. The British government embarked on a big plan to boost their economy, but are British officials confident that this is going to turn the situation around?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, they're confident as much as anyone can be in this unprecedented global financial meltdown that fiscal stimulus is essential. And Gordon Brown was one of the loudest voices in the G-20 calling for that. In fact, he wanted everybody to commit, all the countries to commit to a much more precise timetable for it.

That said, the British economy was already into debt. The heart has gone out of their finance sector, which was a huge engine of growth here. As they look ahead -- and this is what was laid out in this pre-budget report that Brown's chancellor, Alistair Darling, presented Monday in the House of Commons, there's just red ink as far as the eye can see, a doubling of the national debt within a few years to $1 trillion and, in fact, an admission by the Brown government they're going to have to raise taxes two and three years down the pike.

So I would say it's more than a Hail Mary -- it's not a Hail Mary pass, but -- and they certainly felt very much they had to do it. But I wouldn't say they're fully confident that this will pull Britain out unless the whole world pulls out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, Margaret, the British population. You've been talking to a lot of people in the days you've been there. How confident are they?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, that's an interesting question. I don't hear the same kind of confidence that you, frankly, hear in the states or at least until I left 12 days ago.

All the people I've talked to -- and I've talked to scores of people now -- there's more of a -- there just isn't that same confidence. There's more a sense that we're in for some tough times, we will endure, but we're just hunkering down and steeling ourselves for the ordeal.

And it's almost a cliche here. I mean, somebody said to me today, you know, we're very good at this stiff upper lip thing. And another fellow, which was the theme of my piece earlier this week said, yes, it's kind of like the war, isn't it? And he was only about 30, so he didn't even know World War II.

So it's a different kind of mood and a different kind of flavor. But I think that the Brits certainly haven't lost heart, I just wouldn't say fully confident.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, we've been following your reporting closely. Thank you. Thank you so much. And travel safe.