By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 2, 2009
LONDON, April 1 -- President Obama talked dinosaurs with Prime Minister Gordon Brown's young sons, nuclear weapons with the Russian president, trade with the Chinese president and squeezed in a visit to Buckingham Palace, where he gave Queen Elizabeth II that most American of gifts, an iPod.
The first full day of Obama's first trip as president outside North America was a whirl of high-minded, high-stakes diplomacy and an old-fashioned charm offensive.
Battling a cold that left him sounding a little stuffed up, Obama covered a mind-bending agenda that included the global financial crisis, nuclear proliferation, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan and even England's chances in its World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on Wednesday night (the Brits won, 2-1).
Michelle Obama also packed in her first day abroad as first lady, visiting a cancer center and trading gifts with Brown's wife, Sarah. The first lady gave one of the Brown boys a Louisville Slugger baseball bat and a ball signed by the president, and the other a Dr. Seuss book. In return, Brown gave her summer clothes and sunglasses from the British department store Marks & Spencer for first daughters Sasha and Malia.
During the private audience with the queen, who has been meeting presidents since she took the throne in 1952 (more than nine years before Obama was born), Obama gave her the iPod containing songs and video footage of her 2007 visit to the United States. He also presented her with a rare songbook signed by American composer Richard Rodgers.
In return, the queen gave the president a framed photo of herself and her husband, Prince Philip.
After a palace reception for world leaders and their spouses attending this week's Group of 20 economic summit, the Obamas and other dignitaries headed to a dinner at Brown's office and residence at 10 Downing Street.
Obama sat between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he has had differences over responses to the financial crisis, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Michelle Obama, in a separate dinner for spouses, was to sit between J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, and British track and field star Kelly Holmes.
Thousands of protesters marched on the streets of London, and there were several violent clashes with police. But police reported only about two dozen arrests, and the widespread violence that had been feared did not materialize.
Protesters smashed windows at a Royal Bank of Scotland building in the City, as London's financial district is known. RBS has been one of the highest profile banks in the crisis and was essentially nationalized to keep it from failing, at a cost of billions of dollars to British taxpayers.
Earlier in the day, 11 people were arrested after being stopped in an armored personnel carrier in the financial district. The vehicle was painted blue with the word "Riot" stenciled on the front. It was not immediately clear how such a vehicle managed to drive into central London on a day when security was at unprecedented levels.
Banks have taken special precautions to protect employees amid fears that bankers could be targeted by protesters. Most told their employees to dress down to look less like bankers, and not to wear logos or ID badges identifying them as bankers.
Sam Tyfeld, 35, a lawyer, wore a blue suit and purple tie despite warnings from his law firm. He said he did so to defy the protesters, whom he described as privileged youngsters who "are living on daddy's credit card."
Mostly, the day was about Obama, who is immensely popular in Britain, and the trappings of the president on a major overseas tour.
There has been endless fascination with the president's limousine in the British news media, focusing on some of the particularly cool aspects: It is sealed to withstand a chemical attack! It carries bags of the president's own blood!
So after "The Beast," as the big black Cadillac with D.C. license plates is known, arrived at Downing Street, the BBC posted a 90-second video showing the president's driver executing a three-point turn in Downing Street's tiny front courtyard. The video stayed up all morning and was among the network's most viewed.
Obama and Brown sat for a chat, then walked across to the Foreign Office for a news conference.
Both men were at pains to dismiss talks of cool relations between them with big verbal bear hugs. Obama called Brown "Gordon" so many times that a beaming and normally hyper-formal Brown finally took the plunge and tossed out a few genial "Baracks."
Being a "Buddy of Barack" in Europe these days is pure political gold dust, and Brown was visibly tickled when Obama mentioned talking about dinosaurs with his young sons.
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.