Waiting for Obama

The president was supposed to be touching down in Australia Sunday night. Sam Bungey on how the land down under is coping with the snub.

Larry Downing, Reuters / Landov

Sunday night, we in Australia were supposed to be welcoming President Barack Obama and toasting to your good health care. Instead, we’re looking at squadrons of parked F-18 fighter jets, piles of useless scheduling books and a prime minister, Kevin Rudd, brave-facing it like a stood-up sheila at a high-school mixer.

Australia was to be the last stop on a Pacific presidential tour that would also take in Indonesia and Guam and include the first family. But with U.S. health-care reform ruling the agenda, the trip has been delayed, truncated, and now moved back till at least June.

With Hillary Clinton already cancelling on him earlier in the year (again for good reason; she was re-routed to Haiti), Rudd is fast losing the vicarious allure of popular friends.

The historic health-care bill is a compelling excuse for Obama, and clearly no snub is intended to any party. But the way the episode has played out will sit uneasily with our PM, who often likes to stress how matey he is with the leader of the free world. And as Rudd prepares for his own skirmish over health reform during an election year, taking a daily beating at the polls, this opportunity to align himself with the Great American Reformer was just the medicine the prime minister needed.

Despite presidential visits being thin on the ground here, this month marks 70 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, during which Australia has accommodated everything from troop support to large, nebulous U.S. spy stations in the outback. When the White House accepted Rudd’s personal invitation to Obama in February, it looked like the PM had some real pull. Announcing that his mate was dropping by, he gleefully declared the trip, ''Good news for those who attach great importance to the Australia-U.S. relationship.''

Then the back-out began. Sketchy reports emerged on March 13 that the trip would be delayed by three days. Then Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs announced in a tweet that the trip was trimmed to a glorified refueling stop for Air Force One. Obama would leave the family at home, bypass Sydney and have less than 36 hours to take in Canberra (to be fair, this is ample time to absorb all the glories of the purpose-built political capital).

Then, late last week, Rudd got the Dear John phone call from the president. Afterward, he went on television to deliver a message about the sketched-in June visit: "I know President Obama pretty well—it'd be nice to have him and Michelle and the kids,” adding “I’m pretty relaxed about all that.” Perhaps he was still vibing off the president’s famously chilled manner, but the statement belied our man’s nerdy disposition.

Kevin Rudd is possibly the world leader in most dire need of an Obama-fueled coolness boost. While his political opponent, Tony Abbott, struts around in budgie smugglers (aka Speedos, body-hugging swimwear) and is prone to 200-kilometer bike rides, Rudd looks as though he might lack the requisite hand-eye coordination for backgammon. With his silvery bowl haircut, sensible spectacles (some have unkindly compared his look to that of an aging lesbian), and sedative speaking style, Rudd, impressive though he is in other ways, would rank low in a global index of hip. And with Hillary Clinton already cancelling on him earlier in the year (again for good reason; she was re-routed to Haiti), Rudd is fast losing the vicarious allure of popular friends.

Politics aside, much of Australia has been sympathetically looking on at the U.S. health-care shenanigans and the cancellation surprised few and insulted fewer still. Equally there had been no great rush by the public to prepare for Obama’s arrival. The multiple plan changes doubtless contributed, but there was a measurable laissez-faire attitude from this laid-back country, in contrast to the reception the American first family has received in other destinations. There was none of the feverish anticipation of last summer’s trip to Martha’s Vineyard for example—no commemorative muffin recipes, no bespoke cocktails, no first dog-inspired pet apparel.

There are, too, those bitter memories supplied by the last visiting U.S. president. In a week Sydneysiders do not remember fondly, George W. Bush and a few dozen other heads of state invaded Sydney for the APEC economic summit in 2007. Thousands protested. Roads were closed on short notice. Greenpeace and student activists were outlawed and habeas corpus was suspended. Bush, mistaking his hosts, called them Austrians, and protesters returned the favor by giving him a 21-bum (backside) salute.

This president can expect a far warmer welcome. Australians unite in adoration of earth’s most charismatic politician, with new research showing 77 percent of Australians have a very high opinion of Obama, just a 2 percent drop from his approval ratings here on Election Day (that’s far more than are enamored with Kevin Rudd here, or with Obama at home).

When it does eventually happen, the trip promises some memorable moments. For one thing, aforementioned opposition leader Tony Abbott is among the scheduled dinner guests. A devout Catholic nicknamed the “Mad Monk,” Abbott is a one-man gaffe factory to rival Joe Biden and, given his forceful views, should contribute to lively banter. “Climate-change science is absolute crap. Abortions are this country’s unutterable shame. Pass the salt?” Presumably they’ll all be sitting at the same table in a few months and meanwhile Obama and Rudd will have to work out their popularity issues alone.

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Sam Bungey grew up in London, went to university in Dublin and co-founded Mongrel, a monthly magazine about Irish youth culture. A freelance journalist, he was recently a reporter and online editor at the Vineyard Gazette in Massachusetts. He currently lives in Sydney.