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Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Wednesday, 15 October 2008 11:49 UK

Washington diary: Brown the hero?

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Until last week, Gordon Brown was a virtual nobody on this side of the Atlantic.

Gordon Brown
The New York Times hailed Mr Brown as the saviour of the world economy

The vast majority of Americans were simply unaware of his existence.

Even President Bush called him "that fellow" at a press conference 18 months ago.

Being stubbornly loyal, Uncle Sam only really had eyes for Tony Blair.

Those who knew that one prime minister had been quietly replaced by another simply could not compute the departure of Blair - who remains immensely popular on this side of the Pond - in the same way that America could not get its head around the defeat of Winston Churchill at the polls in 1945.

And the few who took a forensic interest in British politics would have been reading the same early obituaries of Mr Brown that had filled the newspapers at home.

What a difference a week makes!


In the New York Times, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (translation: the Secretary of the Treasury) have been credited by the paper's august economic columnist with having saved the world economy from financial meltdown.

Paul Krugman paid them the compliment on the day that he himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics.

I wonder if Number 10 has started air-dropping copies of the New York Times op-ed page over the United Kingdom?

The praise has been echoed, albeit more reluctantly, in the conservative press.

On Fox News it has been uttered through gritted teeth with a hint of disbelief.

But the highest form of flattery is still imitation.

When President Bush hailed the "ownership society" this is not what he meant

Hank Paulson, once the "uber-Master of the Universe", has been dragged to the altar of direct intervention in the banks and followed Gordon Brown's example.

Paulson called it necessary but "objectionable to most Americans".

Take a pause and consider what has happened: a conservative administration, wedded to the free market, allergic to nationalisation and hyper-allergic to all forms of socialism, run by a Texan oil man and a former Wall Street investment banker has adopted an economic emergency package that would make Michael Foot, the last leader of unreconstructed (old) Labour proud.

The Federal government now owns a stake in some of America's leading banks.

The taxpayer has become banking, insurance and property mogul.

When President Bush hailed the "ownership society" this is not what he meant.

It is also very rare for a country that likes to believe it is the best at just about everything to take advice from foreigners, let alone act on it.

It reminds me of the time in 2002, when the Iraq war was brewing and British diplomats touted the line that London was the Athens to Washington's Rome.

What was wishful thinking at the time has become partially true today - how ironic!

Painful recession

But pride in the company of foreigners and ideology in the company of purists are luxuries America cannot afford these days.

They have been suspended while the patient has been saved on the operating table.

With earnest mien and bloodied apron, Gordon Brown stands aloft as the surgeon-in-chief.

The Prime Minister has had a stay of execution.

But who knows how long it will last or whether it will save him at the next election.

Economists predict a painful recession.

When the real economy starts to hurt, voters are bound to get angry and point fingers of blame.

A senior economist also told me today that Britain could still become tomorrow's Iceland, an entire island sunk by the credit crisis.

Unlike the US, the country's economy is heavily dependent on the banking sector and has fewer economic cushions, like manufacturing, to fall back on.

Property values and banks are the only backbone of the British economy.

The white knuckle ride is not over yet.

In this country, Barack Obama has been the political beneficiary of the financial crisis.

The economy has always been his stronger suit.

He has sounded calm and collected when his opponent has swung almost as feverishly as the stock market.

Unleashing his surrogates to brand Mr Obama as a friend of terrorists and an extremist is nasty and off the point.

But as 4 November draws near, the days become more breathless and voters' memories will grow even shorter.

Gordon Brown's example of a reversal of fortune could inspire John McCain.

The Republican still has three weeks to put the wheels back on the Straight Talk Express, ditch the attack dog politics and strike a note that is both serious AND hopeful, appealing to America's resilient optimism even in dire times.

The momentary reprieve in the stock and credit markets helps him.

But he needs to seal the deal and unlike Gordon Brown he only has words to help him.

And one debate.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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