Beyond Axe v. Messina: Why Obama Cares About the U.K. Elections

There's more at stake than which Obama adviser has picked the next prime minister.

Elizabeth Tower, commonly called Big Ben, is pictured on April 1, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

The White House doesn't get involved in other countries' elections. President Barack Obama has said so himself and he and his team take care to avoid any appearance of meddling.

That said, the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from the political staff to the national security team to the commander-in-chief himself are gripped by the drama of Thursday's contest across the pond pitting U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and the Tories against Ed Miliband and Labour.

“The president is obviously following the elections that are taking place in a country with whom we have such a special relationship,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, though he didn't want to say much more. “I'm unwilling to speak about this election in a way that might leave anybody with the impression that we're supporting one side or another.”

Superficially, much of the intrigue has revolved around all the former Obama advisers with skin in the game. Obama's former campaign manager and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, and former Obama body man Reggie Love are two of the most recognizable U.S. names who signed on to work to keep Cameron in power. Former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, message man Larry Grisolano, rapid-response specialist Matthew McGregor and Vice President Joe Biden's former adviser Mike Donilon signed on to help Miliband. One Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with either candidate but was in London last week said Labour's campaign office was filled with British operatives who had come to the U.S. in 2008 and 2012 to help Obama.

Cheers to the U.K. Elections

But for Obama, who will work closely in his final year and a half in office on intelligence, diplomacy, security and economic policy with whomever leads Britain—and for the Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls who want to be sitting in Obama's Oval Office come 2017—the concerns about who wins in the U.K. and what it means for the U.S. are far more substantive.

If Cameron hangs on, the U.K. may be at greater risk of withdrawal from the European Union, something the U.S. doesn't want, or at least more likely to shake Europe with that threat via referendum. If Miliband unseats the incumbent, the EU situation may be more stable but the U.K. may become a more reluctant partner on military, nuclear, foreign policy, and security matters. These developments would have less to do with the views of  Cameron and his center-right party or Miliband and his center-left party than they do with the leanings of groups they may need to form a majority in Parliament, be it the U.K. Independence Party or the Scottish National Party. That's especially true for Miliband whose need to form political coalitions may force him into a more isolationist stance.

“This election is incredibly important to the United States,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “What this election is really going to help tell us is, what will the U.K.'s role be internationally for the foreseeable future?”

With either rival, but especially in Labour's case, there is a concern for the U.S. that the governing coalition that may turn the U.K. focus more inward and make it harder for the U.S. to predict its stances, Conley said. “How much energy and ability to dedicate to foreign and security policy issues will either party be able to dedicate if they're consumed by the internal dynamics?”

This is part of a trend that already has reverberated in elections in France, Spain and Greece. “Across Europe, the political center is no longer holding,” Conley said. “In the U.K., the two major parties are only getting a third of the vote if the polls hold and it's giving way to people who are disgusted with both. What this does to national unity is my larger concern.”

U.S. and U.K. leaders often talk about the “special relationship” between the countries, how America's 18th century revolution for its independence has yielded its closest alliance. To that end, there is an expectation that any U.S. president and U.K. prime minister can count on one another, something George W. Bush and Tony Blair proved with lasting political effect.

Cameron is someone Obama already knows he can work with and one of the few world leaders whose company he seems to enjoy on a personal level. Obama's nickname for Cameron? “Bro.” They like to rib one another publicly. In 2012, they famously took in a “March Madness” basketball game in Ohio. Earlier this year, while visiting the White House, Cameron sought to back Obama up on getting Congress to hold off on new Iran sanctions in the middle of nuclear talks. “It’s the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions or further threat of sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion and they could fracture the international unity that there’s been, which has been so valuable in presenting a united front to Iran,” Cameron said.

Cameron couldn't deliver a House of Commons vote that would have bolstered Obama's case for a U.S.-led strike on Syria. But it was Miliband who cast that defeat for Obama in a different light, saying the British people wanted their politicians to learn the lessons of the Iraq war—a war that Obama himself opposed.

Post-Iraq War, even under Cameron, analysts say the U.S.-U.K. relationship has become a bit more tentative, with a turning inward by the British and more concern from both nations about spending. Would that trend pick up steam under Miliband?

On paper, Miliband and Obama may be more ideologically aligned. But Obama doesn't know the Labour leader as well as Cameron and hasn't had the same shared experiences through international challenges they have met. Obama dropped in last year when Miliband met at the White House to meet with national security officials.

Louis Susman, who served as Obama's ambassador to the U.K. until 2013, said for the U.S. administration, this is not about trying to sway the outcome of the election so much as preparing for the implications of whatever the outcome may be. For the U.S., the best outcome would see the U.K.  “to continue to be the great ally that they are,” Susman said. “We want to them stay in the EU, to have a strong defense budget and to be a strong ally.”

—John Fraher contributed from London.

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