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British public views election as 'clash of ideals'

OXFORD, England - When Americans head to the polls Tuesday, most Britons will be rooting for another victory for President Obama. His superstar image may have diminished after what many here consider a disappointing term, but in the United Kingdom, the majority look unfavorably on Republican candidate Mitt Romney's gaffes and oft-repeated goal to undo Obama's signature health care plan.
An opinion poll conducted in 21 countries, released Oct. 22 by the BBC World Service, found an overwhelmingly higher amount of foreign support for the incumbent over Romney, with approximately 50 percent of respondents backing Obama and 9 percent supporting Romney.
In the U.K., the poll found 65 percent of respondents supporting Obama, with 7 percent backing Romney. The poll shows that Obama's popularity in the U.K. has actually risen in the past four years. During the 2008 poll, 59 percent of those surveyed expressed support for the current president.
But regardless of the election's outcome, the relationship between the United States and the U.K. will largely stay the same, according to Gillian Peele, fellow and tutor at the University of Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall.
Neither candidate seems to have developed a particularly close relationship with the British government, Peele said. Obama's strong anti-colonial stance puts him at odds with Britain's history of empire, and Romney paid a "mess" of a visit to London this summer, when his remarks on the Olympic Games were seen by the public as "crass," she added.
"The British government will still feel cold regardless of who wins," said Matthew Lakin, a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association and a doctoral student in politics at Oriel College, Oxford.
Though Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron appear to "get on all right," said George Mawhinney, president of the Oxford Conservative Association, some of Obama's actions during the past four years have raised questions about his attitude toward Britain. Upon taking office in 2009, the president returned a bust of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill - which had been loaned to former President George W. Bush and since graced the Oval Office - to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. During the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama criticized the multinational corporation BP and referred to it by its former name, British Petroleum. These remarks elicited criticism from sections of the British public and the press, who viewed it as an attack on the U.K. Obama has also pledged to remain neutral on the question of British and Argentine claims to the Falkland Islands, but he erred in referring to the islands as "the Maldives," an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Argentina refers to the Falkland Islands as the Malvinas.
Obama is certainly not sentimental about the U.K., said Nico Hobhouse, press and publicity officer for the Oxford University Liberal Democrats. But he is "pragmatic and treats Britain on a fair basis," Hobhouse said. The president has fostered a strong relationship with the U.K. by, for example, coordinating the response to the Arab Spring.
Romney's image in the U.K., by contrast, seems to have been negatively shaped by his gaffe-laden visit to London before the Olympic Games this summer. "That made him," said Adam Whiley, co-chair-elect of the Oxford University Labour Club.
Especially for people who are not well-versed in Romney's stances on policy issues, the Republican candidate is defined by his criticisms of the British preparations for the Games. The Olympic Games were a source of national pride and were more successful than people had expected, Whiley said, exacerbating the effect of Romney's negative comments.
Not many Britons are holding a grudge for Romney's remarks, Hobhouse said. Though a "silly thing to say," the public did not deem his comments "malicious," he added.
But Romney's attitude and position towards the U.K. and Europe remain vague and unclear, Whiley said. Oxford Labour Club Treasurer Will Brown echoed his sentiments, noting that a Romney presidency would most likely be characterized by inconsistency and ineffectiveness in working with the European Union, where the future of the U.K. lies.
While the British Conservative Party and the American Republican Party share an interest in reducing budget deficits to stimulate economic growth, Obama brings a more balanced approach to the table. Romney's economic policies would probably not have a major effect on the British economy, Lakin said. The American and British economies are "not in sync," he said. The future of the European Union will be a more central factor in determining the health of the British economy, Hobhouse said.
A Romney victory would also signal less cooperation on social policy, Lakin said. Cameron wants to legalize gay marriage in the U.K. by the end of 2014, while Romney, who has voiced personal opposition to same-sex marriage, would likely leave the issue for individual states to decide.
Obama officially voiced his support for gay marriage in June.


Post-Bush politics

Britons also view Obama's foreign policy in a favorable light compared to that of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, Hobhouse said. People are accepting of an America that leads the world with a set of democratic values in a non-hypocritical way, he said. "Everything has to be understood in the context of Bush," Whiley said.

Oxford students are quite interested in this election, Mawhinney said, given America's wealth and influential position in the world. Four years later, there continues to be a sense of "Obamamania" among the students, Lakin said, though with a "tinge of disappointment" that was not present in 2008.
Peele said there is less enthusiasm for Obama because it is difficult to deem his term a "resounding success." But Obama is still "young and attractive and black," which is appealing, while Romney is seen as "stiff," she said. The British still view Obama as an idealist, a skilled orator and a generally decent person, Hobhouse said.
The contrast between the two candidates has captured the attention of Oxford students. While Obama is viewed in terms of his 2010 Affordable Care Act and his support of increased Wall Street regulation, Lakin said, Romney is seen as a return to the Gilded Age or a 1950s-style social policy. The election is a "clash of ideals, not just a clash of pragmatics," Hobhouse said.
Much of the British public supports Obama's health care reform, as the issue of health care is the "most resonant" domestic policy issue for people in Britain, Whiley said. Britons almost unanimously support the universal health care provided by the National Health Service, Brown said.
A majority of Conservatives in the U.K. would back Obama, Mawhinney said, as the political spectrum in the United States leans further to the right. "Things that we got over here 50 years ago are still discussed in America," he said. The "ideological synergy" of the Thatcher-Reagan years no longer exists, Lakin said. Co
nservatives in the U.K and the Republican Party in the United States are heading in opposite directions.
Most Britons lie far to the left on the political spectrum of even many Democrats, Peele said, and the British do not understand Romney's desire to roll back welfare provisions.
"America is at a crossroads," Hobhouse said. 


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