Barack Obama’s visit to the UK last weekend was one of those rare touchy-feely moments in politics. With approval ratings of over 70%, the first African-American President of the United States is still very popular in the United Kingdom. As such, his last official visit to Britain was always going to be a special occasion commanding a lot of media attention.
Obama seemed to enjoy himself too, relishing the chance to take in a 90th birthday lunch with the Queen (who we learnt is one of his favourite people), and engaging in an interesting and at times emotional Q&A session with a group of young people. But his message to them that “change takes time” and that they should actively seek out people with opposing views – inspiring though it may have been to those present – was not his main piece of advice for us Brits. For Obama had made the brave decision to wade into our referendum campaign, and urge us to stay in the EU. He told us that if we brexited, we could expect to find ourselves “in the back of the queue” for a US trade deal. Not surprisingly, the media was all over it.
So, what (if any) difference has it made?
Obama may have played a few rounds of golf with the PM during his visit, but a few days ago, you couldn’t move for commentators suggesting that an American President with a penchant for basketball had single-handedly slam-dunked the referendum for the Remain camp. Admittedly, Vote Leavers did look slightly dazed and disorientated (though in the case of Boris, that’s just how he always looks). Nigel Farage was complaining that the official Leave campaign had spent too much time talking about trade deals, and needed to move on to his favourite subject – immigration. Boris Johnson was trying to deflect criticism he’d received for accusing the "part-Kenyan" Obama of “ancestral dislike” towards Britain, and making his best effort to suggest that advice from a figure who was overwhelmingly popular with the British public would not be welcomed by the British public. In other words, he was putting a brave face on it.
Yet, now that the tyre-tracks of Air Force One are fading, the first few referendum voting intention polls released since Obama’s intervention have shown a small movement in the direction of Leave. It’s all well within the margin of error, and Lynton Crosby in the Telegraph (a man whose distrust of polls seems to have served him well in the past) reckons these kinds of events often take time to filter through into public opinion.
Perhaps then, it’s too soon to tell whether we’ll heed Obama’s advice, or dip two fingers in Union-Jack coloured paint and stick them up at him. But there has been another intriguing development since the weekend. While Hillary Clinton has echoed her Commander-in-Chief's warning against Brexit, and Donald Trump has remained silent, Ted Cruz has chosen to make a show of contradicting Obama. Cruz is battling to hold on to his chances of securing the Republican nomination to run for President, and looks little more than an outside bet to win in November (as things stand). But he has made clear in an article for the Times (£) that he wants to revive the “special relationship” to its former glory, and has specifically promised that if he wins the White House Britain will be “at the front of the queue” for a trade deal. Whether that really means in front of a mass trading partner of 30-odd states like the European Union is hard to tell, but as we wait for the real impact of Obama’s intervention on the polls, Cruz's comments have offered the Leave camp at least one small crumb of comfort.