Barack Obama and the EU Referendum: A Post-Game Analysis

Obama’s latest visit to the UK whipped up a referendum-related frenzy. But does his opinion matter?

Last week Hurricane Obama swept through the UK on a whirlwind tour whipping up a referendum-related frenzy. David Cameron had called in the cavalry. Mr Obama visited the UK for a few reasons – wishing our long-reigning sovereign a happy birthday and smoothing the pathway to TTIP amongst them. Although it became clear that his support for the UK to remain in the European Union would be the one to hit the headlines.

The Prime Minister and the President’s relationship has been a peculiar one. Initially full of photo opportunities and selfies it then evolved into a power couple with joint shows of strength against Russia and ISIS. David Cameron proudly commented last year that the President refers to him as ‘bro’.  However, even last month, Obama commented in an interview with the Atlantic that the Libya ‘mess’ was largely due to the British Prime Minister’s distraction over domestic issues.

During his visit, the US-UK ‘special’ relationship evolved a little further with the President even taking time to lock horns with Mayor of London Boris Johnson in a row over a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office. The war of words that was waged gave the impression of a battle between two men with waning political capital, staunchly defending their last stand. Mr Obama also made his thoughts clear on the nature of negotiating trade agreements with the US, should the UK choose to leave the European Union. He was unwavering in his statement that the UK would join the ‘back of the queue’ of those wishing to negotiate trade deals with the USA.  His choice of words here was puzzling to some. With commentators wondering whether this particularly British sounding phrase been prepared for him?

Others asked whether the President’s position really mattered at all as his tenure would be over before any trade negotiations began. Republican candidate Ted Cruz re-emphasised this point and endeavoured to raise his ‘statesman’ credentials by writing in The Times that if he was elected, he would ensure Britain was at the front of the line for a free trade deal with the US.

Mobilising the young vote

Barack Obama also made a concerted effort to talk to some of the UK’s young people during his visit. As part of his itinerary, he hosted a ‘town hall’ in London where he asked an audience of young people to reject pessimism, cynicism and know that progress is possible.

“I’m here to ask you to reject the notion there are forces we can’t control. As JFK said, our problems are man-made and can be solved by man”  – President Obama, 22nd April 2016, Lindley Hall

For a generation most likely to vote to remain, but least likely to vote, he may have provided some necessary motivation. Barack Obama knows how to electrify young people.

His words could easily have been directed to his own nation. As Donald Trump polls particularly badly with young people, with just 25% of 18-29 year olds saying they would vote for him compared to Clinton’s 61%, the businessman will be looking to attract them to his extraordinary brand of fear politics in advance of the Republican convention and beyond.

A non-event?

Obama’s visit prompted cries across the political and media establishment that the President’s behaviour was wholly inappropriate – how dare a foreign leader come and weigh in on a national issue during an election campaign, how arrogant can ‘King Barack’ be.

However, one wonders whether his actions really matter at all. Obama’s visit is likely to be his last and was a demonstration of a world leader employing the last vestiges of foreign influence.

Whilst it is important for the British people to hear how our potential departure from the European Union is seen by our partners around the world, does it really matter what the current US president thinks on the matter? He won’t be around to put the bite in his bark and America’s political future is as uncertain as our own.

Where Obama did succeed was in giving the electorate a bit of a jolt, in a way only he can. His celebrity and the controversy he has courted by wading in, has kicked the referendum debate into a higher gear. David Cameron called in a favour and whilst whether it worked or not remains to be seen, it has certainly turned up the volume.