President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama began their state visit to the U.K. with a welcome to Buckingham Palace from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by a tour and private lunch.
Obama, 49, led by Prince Philip, 89, watched as troops of the guard of honor, 1st Battalion Scots Guards, delivered a royal salute. Members of the Guard band, dressed in cardinal red uniforms, played the U.S. national anthem in the palace’s gardens. A 41-gun salute sounded from Green Park, where the cannons fired while the queen, 85, and the first lady looked atop the steps of the palace’s west terrace. Across town, at the Tower of London, there was a 61-gun salute.
The state visit is a chance to strengthen ties between the two countries, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The focus for the visit of the U.K. is really to put the ‘special’ back into the U.S.-U.K. special relationship,” she said at a briefing last week.
Tomorrow the president will address both houses of Parliament, an “anchor speech of this trip to Europe,” said Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Rhodes told reporters last week that in light of the tumult in the Middle East and North Africa, “it’s imperative” that the U.S. and Europe work at “retaining and strengthening our cooperation around the world.”
Obama met briefly today with Prime Minister David Cameron and the two leaders will have more extensive talks tomorrow, followed by a news conference.
The queen showed the president and first lady the suite where they will be staying at Buckingham Palace during the next two nights, which was last occupied by Price William and Catherine, the duke and duchess of Cambridge, on their wedding night, according to a palace spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Obamas also met the couple, who recently returned from a honeymoon.
Earlier, at Winfield House, the U.S ambassador’s official residence where they spent last night, Obama met Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla.
In an exchange of gifts, the queen presented Obama a selection of letters from the royal archives sent or received by Queen Victoria from U.S. presidents starting with John Quincy Adams up to William McKinley. Michelle Obama was given an antique brooch in the form of roses made from gold and red coral.
The president and first lady gave the queen a handmade leather-bound volume containing memorabilia and photographs of the visit to the U.S. by her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, in 1939. It was the first such visit by a reigning British monarch to the U.S. Prince Philip received a custom-made set of horse bits and shanks engraved with the presidential seal.
In honor of the recent marriage of the duke and duchess of Cambridge, the president and the first lady gave six donated MacBook notebook computers to PeacePlayers International, a global nonprofit organization founded by two Americans in Northern Ireland. The duke and duchess of Cambridge asked guests at their wedding to make donations in lieu of presents and listed the organization as one of their preferred charities.
After lunch, the president and first lady viewed exhibits from the royal collection at the Portrait Gallery and toured Westminster Abbey. Obama also met with Cameron at 10 Downing Street and with opposition Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband.
After the meeting at 10 Downing Street, the day of royal protocols, palace meals and official meetings was broken by a side trip to an underprivileged school in south London. Obama and Cameron toured the Globe Academy, a charter school that specializes in math and performing arts. There, they challenged two students to a game of pingpong doubles, which the two world leaders, with their jackets removed and paddles in their left hands, appeared to lose. “You guys are too good,” said Obama.
The president left Dublin for the U.K. yesterday, a day earlier than scheduled to stay ahead of a volcanic ash cloud spewing from Iceland. Tonight will be capped by a state dinner hosted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.