President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk from Air… (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images )
British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama headed to Ohio to take in one of the “first four” games of the NCAA basketball tournament Tuesday, a lighthearted start to a state visit that will turn to more difficult subjects Wednesday.
The leaders left their wives in Washington for the man date in the swing state, an outing billed by the White House as important cross-cultural bonding time.
The president clearly relished the chance to show off one of his favorite events. After discussing his bracket predictions for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments with ESPN.com, he showed Cameron to the Marine helicopter in his backyard and the two departed for Dayton.
But the buddy time also sends some strong political messages at a critical time for Obama. With new instability in Afghanistan and a tense standoff with Iran, Obama is well-served to try to put the spotlight on his strong and close relationships with U.S. allies.
Cozying up to Cameron, a conservative leader best known for enacting the sort of austerity measures American budget hawks have called for, can't hurt Obama with the moderates and independents he'll need to win in battlegrounds like Ohio.
Advisors to the president acknowledge that Obama is trying to make a point about the special close relationship the U.S. has with the Britain, using the Dayton trip to match the reception Cameron gave to Obama when Obama he visited London last year. Then, Cameron and Obama played a game of table tennis together while visiting a public school.
The itinerary is “reflective of the kind of relationship that we have,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
In fact, the two men are practicing a brand of public diplomacy uniquely appropriate to two young, athletic leaders, said Heather Conley, senior fellow of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think tank.
They met amid the strife of the British Petroleum oil spill and the controversy over the Scottish government’s release of Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. They didn’t seem immediately destined to be like Churchill and Roosevelt, or Thatcher and Reagan, she said.
“Historically, the special relationship has always been about the shared history and culture, close military and economic ties,” she said. “But the ‘special’ part is the quality of the relationship between the two leaders.”
Especially at a moment when potential adversaries are sizing up the strength of the alliance, she said, “it’s important to project that close partnership.”
Not everyone is equally impressed. “While showing off our amazing college basketball teams is great, many Americans struggling to find jobs, dealing with soaring gas prices, or concerned with our rising deficit and debt would probably like the president to spend at least as much time dealing with those issues,” said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Meantime, Obama and Cameron do have serious business to discuss on the visit. As the two watched Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky, U.S. and NATO officials were answering tough questions about the killings of 16 civilians by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and the future of the mission there, in which the British have the second-largest troop contingent.
At the same time, the international community is also eyeing the Syrian regime’s violent oppression of its people with growing concern.
The two are set to hold a formal bilateral meeting at the White House on Wednesday and then to take questions from the press. An official state dinner is scheduled for the evening.
But the tone of Tuesday night was casual. Both leaders showed up looking relaxed -- no ties, Cameron in dark-dyed jeans, Obama sporting slacks and a light jacket.
In Obama’s case, anyway, the venue was a comfortable one. Obama is an avid college basketball fan and the White House has gone all in for March Madness.
As reported by ESPN, Obama is predicting a men’s Final Four featuring Kentucky, Ohio State, Missouri and North Carolina, and a women’s Final Four of Baylor, St. John’s, UConn and Notre Dame.
Cameron, reportedly, is more of a cricket guy.
Hennessey reported from Dayton, Ohio, and Parsons reported from Washington.
March Madness offers man date setting for Obama and Cameron