In the splendor of Buckingham Palace and even a fast game of table tennis with British kids, President Barack Obama spent a full day of his European tour on Tuesday tending to and underlining the importance of U.S. relations with England. Along the way, baby boomers Barack and Michelle Obama cemented their deepening friendship with the 85-year-old queen.
In toasting Queen Elizabeth II at only the second state dinner the British have ever thrown for an American president, Obama called her "a living witness to the power of our alliance and a chief source of its resilience."
The queen, in turn, described the relationship between the two countries as "tried, tested and, yes, special."
Tuesday's state visit was all about images-with-a-message before Obama delves into the gritty details of foreign policy with British Prime Minister David Cameron on the last day of his visit to England, and makes an address to Parliament reassuring Europe about its place in American foreign policy. At the same time, the president kept one eye on the devastating Midwest tornadoes at home, scheduling a visit to Missouri on Sunday as soon as he returns from his four-nation tour of Europe.
In the formality and ceremony of the president's state visit in London — and in the unscripted personal moments that played out within that framework — Obama was working to shore up the U.S. relationship with Britain and to further his efforts to see Western allies shoulder a greater share of the burden in addressing trouble spots around the globe.
Tuesday was a day for over-the-top pomp: Not just a 21-gun salute, but a 41-gun salute at the palace (20 extras because the shots were fired from a royal park) and an additional 62-gun salute from the Tower of London (21 bonus booms because they were fired within the city of London, palace officials explained).
As a special treat, the Obamas had a chance to meet newlyweds Prince William and new wife Kate, who came down from Wales for what one palace spokesman called "a bit of a chin wag." The couples had a morning visit, but the newlyweds didn't stay for dinner.
State visits are arranged by Britain's government as a way of courting allies and rewarding friends. The queen's guest list and even her dinner toast are coordinated with officials.
Although most previous presidents have visited England and met the queen, a number of features are required by British protocol in order for the trip to be considered a state visit. George W. Bush is the only previous U.S. president to be accorded a state visit, according to Buckingham Palace.
High-powered ceremony was deployed at every turn:
—In the formal welcome in the sunshine of the West Terrace, where Obama and the Duke of Edinburgh reviewed the troops of the Scots Guard.
—In a solemn wreath-laying at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey.
—In the gilded state dinner, with its royal procession into the ballroom and a menu including Agneau de la Nouvelle Saison de Windsor au Basilic (seasonal lamb).
Michelle Obama, her clothes always a source of worldwide fascination, turned up at the state dinner wearing a high fashion white gown by Tom Ford with a crisscross halter neckline and fitted waist with a self-tie bow.
Celebrities Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey, Tim Burton, and Helena Bonham-Carter added luster to the list of invited guests.
On Wednesday, the president's Europe tour, which began with a friendly visit to Ireland, pivots to focus on a thicket of foreign policy challenges.
Obama is scheduled to meet with Cameron to discuss security issues including Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and counterterrorism. The two also are expected to discuss the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya, and ways the U.S. and Britain can boost assistance to rebels opposing longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The cooperation between the U.S. and Europe over Libya underscores the critical nature of America's relationship with its longstanding allies, Obama aide Ben Rhodes said Tuesday. Obama will emphasize that point in a speech to both houses of British Parliament on Wednesday, aimed at reassuring Europe of its place in American foreign policy, even as strategic alliances emerge with other regions.
For all the formality of the state visit, there were signs everywhere of the growing warmth between the Obamas and the queen.
Palace aides described Elizabeth as closely involved in preparations for the visit and happy to have the Obamas come for a two-night sleepover. Before the Obamas emerged on the palace back lawn for the formal arrival ceremony, the queen and her husband personally showed them around their suite of rooms, last occupied by Prince William and his wife on their wedding day.
After a private luncheon, the queen arranged a display for the Obamas of historical items from the palace collection that would be of particular interest to them, including books and relics from early Hawaii, and photos and details about the Resolute desk, a gift from Britain that now serves as the president's desk in the Oval Office.
The couples chatted easily as they toured the exhibit, Obama jokingly calling the Resolute desk "a pretty good deal" for the United States.
In his dinner remarks, Obama told the queen he brought greetings from daughters Sasha and Malia, "who adored you even before you let them ride on a carriage on the palace grounds" during a visit in 2009.
The Obamas struck a highly personal note in their gift for the queen, giving her a selection of memorabilia and photographs from her parents' 1939 visit to the United States. The queen is said to have been very close to her parents.
The queen took special care, too, in her gift choices, providing the president with a collection of letters from the Royal Archives to and from past U.S. presidents and English monarchs. For Mrs. Obama, there was an antique brooch with coral roses.
Even as the Obamas bonded with the queen, there was a parallel effort afoot to build ties with Cameron, whose help Obama will need on an array of issues.
After the president made a courtesy call to the prime minister at 10 Downing St., Cameron jumped in the motorcade with Obama and the two visited a local school, where they played table tennis with youngsters. The two world leaders didn't lack for enthusiasm — even if the boys seemed to get the best of them — rolling up their shirt sleeves and swapping high fives when points went their way.
Obama even offered a few excuses when his partner lost more than a few points for the US-UK dream team.
"Tennis is his game," Obama explained for Cameron.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Raphael Satter, David Stringer contributed to this report.