Obama readies for royal reception in London

Associated Press
U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama step off Air Force One as they arrive at London's Stansted Airport, Monday, May 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
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LONDON (AP) — President Barack Obama is trading in small-town Irish charm for the pomp and pageantry of Buckingham Palace during a two-day state visit to Britain at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Obama arrived Monday night in London, a bit ahead of schedule, because of safety concerns over a volcanic ash cloud being blown toward Britain from Iceland. The shifting path of the ash forced the president to make a hasty departure from Dublin.

While Obama will tackle prickly foreign policy matters in the coming days, the opening rounds of his four-country European tour are all about the personal politics that made him so beloved on this continent as a presidential candidate and in the early days of his term in office.

While in Ireland, Obama embraced the touch of Irish in his family history, drinking a pint of Guinness with a distant cousin in the hamlet of Moneygall and delivering a rousing speech on the ties between the U.S. and Ireland before tens of thousands crammed into the center of Dublin.

In London, the president and his wife, Michelle, will embrace the tradition and history of Britain's royal family, which is experiencing a resurgence in popularity following the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now known as Princess Catherine.

Royal watchers say the queen has taken a liking to the Obamas ever since meeting the couple during their 2009 visit to London. Mrs. Obama created a stir in Britain when she wrapped her arm around the queen — a faux pas, according to royal etiquette experts — only to have the queen respond with her own show of affection and a reciprocal embrace.

Back in London again, this time as official guests of the queen, the Obamas will spend two nights at Buckingham Palace. They'll be welcomed to the palace Tuesday morning in an elaborate arrival ceremony, and toasted at an intimate banquet for about 200 royals and other dignitaries that evening.

The president will also lay a wreath at Westminster Abbey, the site of the recent royal wedding. The newlyweds just returned from their honeymoon, and a palace official said the couple would meet the Obamas Tuesday.

Obama will meet briefly with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday, though their most substantial talks will come the following day, when Afghanistan, Libya and the global economy are all on the agenda.

Obama's mission, in part, is to reassure Britain and the rest of Europe that the traditional U.S. allies still have a central role in U.S. foreign policy that has become increasingly focused on Asia and other emerging markets.

"I think this is, in part, a way to bring back the special bonds of this relationship," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In a joint editorial for Tuesday's edition of the British newspaper The Times of London, Obama and Cameron cast the relationship between the U.S. and Britain as one that makes the world more secure and more prosperous.

"That is the key to our relationship. Yes, it is founded on a deep emotional connection, by sentiment and ties of people and culture. But the reason it thrives, the reason why this is such a natural partnership, is because it advances our common interests and shared values," the leaders wrote.

Still, the two allies don't always agree on every issue, a reality sure to expose itself in talks on national security and foreign policy. When it comes to the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya, for example, some British lawmakers have expressed concern that European countries, including Britain, have carried an unfair share of the burden in an effort the U.S. has made clear it does not want to run.

After his two-day stop in Britain, Obama will head to France for a meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations and then to Poland, a schedule the White House says the president intends to keep despite the approaching ash cloud.

Obama tried to get to Poland last year for the funeral of its president. But that trip with canceled because of an ash cloud from a different Icelandic volcano.

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Associated Press writer Danica Kirka contributed to this story.

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