Leader: Poetry and prose addresses America as much as the world

PRESIDENT Obama is pretty much the embodiment of the American saying that politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. His speech in Westminster Hall contained both: the poetry of democratic leadership and idealism; and the prose of the increasing limits of western power and influence.

And there was the essential folksy element of American politics - the barbecue in the Downing Street garden. It symbolised something that British politicians too often forget - the need to say to the electorate that powerful though the president may be, he is just an "ordinary guy" cooking up the burgers with his buddies.

And with his burger buddy David Cameron, there was the poetry of stressing the ties that bind. Yes, the United States and the United Kingdom stood firmer, spoke louder, and had fought harder to defend democratic values. Yes also, the two countries stood at a pivotal moment in history, when the time for their leadership in alliance was not just required, but indispensable to the goal of a coming century that was more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just than the last.

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But there was also the prose, gently but nevertheless firmly put, of recognition that the leaders of these two countries could no longer just sit in a room and solve the world's problems over a glass of brandy. In discussing the world problems that the US and the UK needed to confront, the phrase "and allies" appeared, particularly "European allies" when Mr Obama set out the difficulties of finding a solution to the conflict in Libya.

This was a speech as much addressed to the American public as to the world. American power and influence, he was saying, has its limits and Americans need to understand that. The message was conveyed subtly - the depiction of the US and UK as one of the oldest and strongest alliance the world has ever known conveyed the subtext of it being an alliance that America could not do without.

But it was also not a sufficient alliance, for Mr Obama quite firmly ruled America out of having the decisive role in Libya and placed the onus on European, not just British, power to take the lead. That may be a rude shock to some on the traditionalist Conservative right, but it is a realistic assessment that after Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are weary of involvement in foreign conflicts.

If Mr Obama's speech was disappointing, it was in the weakness of his rhetoric concerning the US deficit. Perhaps this was not the forum in which to address it, but the refusal of both Democrat and Republican politicians to accept the urgent need to close the yawning gap between American government spending and revenues is more worrying to many foreign observers than any shifts in foreign policy. Mr Obama's prose did much to rein in the horns of the foreign over-ambition of his predecessor's years, but he has yet to use his poetry to bring reality to America's domestic problems.