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Obama Gives Brown a Chilly Reception at White House

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President Barack Obama met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to discuss several topics, including the credit crisis. They addressed domestic and joint efforts to help reverse the global economic meltdown. Video by AP

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Our British cousins are getting the feeling that the new administration doesn't fancy them.

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The murmurs began when President Obama returned to the British Embassy the Winston Churchill bust that had been displayed in the Oval Office since Tony Blair lent it to George W. Bush.

The fears intensified when press secretary Robert Gibbs, announcing British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's visit to the White House, demoted the Churchillian phrase "special relationship" to a mere "special partnership" across the Atlantic.

And the alarm bells really went off when Brown's entourage landed at Andrews Air Force Base on Monday night. Obama, breaking with precedent, wouldn't grant the prime minister the customary honor of standing beside him in front of the two nations' flags for the TV cameras. The Camp David sleepover that Blair got on his first meeting with Bush? Sorry, chaps.

Still, Brown kept a stiff upper lip as he sat in the Oval Office yesterday as Obama, skipping the usual words of welcome for his guest, went straight to questions from the news services. Brown didn't get to speak for six minutes, after Obama had already answered two questions. Gamely, the snubbed premier tried to speak the president's language.

"I don't think I could ever compete with you at basketball," Brown said. "Perhaps tennis."

"Tennis? I hear you've got a game," Obama replied mildly.

"Yes, we could maybe have a -- have a shot," the prime minister went on.

"We haven't tried it yet," the president said.

"I don't know," Brown said. "I think you'd be better, but there we are."

Obama smiled faintly. Brown spent much of the session with both soles planted on the floor, his palms gripping his thighs.

For the president -- beloved by the world largely for the fact that he is not Bush -- it was a surprisingly cool reception for an ally. Bush, of course, went in the opposite direction, disclosing at his first meeting with Blair, in February 2001, that they both used Colgate toothpaste. In the next 13 visits Blair made to the United States to meet with Bush, all but one included a full stand-at-the-flags-style news conference, according to CBS News's Mark Knoller, an unofficial statistician of the presidency. The one exception was Blair's last-minute trip after the 2001 terrorist attacks to appear at Bush's address to Congress. When Brown took over, he, too, got the Camp David treatment.


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