The Canberra Times

By Judith Ireland

When Air Force One touches down at Fairbairn next Wednesday afternoon, the Secret Service agents do their tricky secret stuff and the President of the United States emerges, chill pills will be in short supply.After two cancelled visits, Australia has been on tenterhooks for more than a year waiting for Barack Obama. When will he come? Will he bring Michelle and the kids? Will he stay for a month to make up for ditching us before?

The jury's still out over whether Obama will prove a more popular VIP than the Queen. But when the President arrives in Canberra, he will find the Australia-US alliance is in rude health - at least from Australia's side of the equation.

Earlier this year, the Lowy Institute poll found 82 per cent of those surveyed supported the US alliance. This week, Lowy's Dr Michael Fullilove predicted that Obama would receive a welcome on a par with reality starlet Kim Kardashian's screaming fan-fuelled visit (so Your Majesty, watch out).

In government-to-government terms, the alliance is also at a high point.

Foreign affairs commentators say the ''rise of China'' (that old chestnut) has cemented the importance of our security relationship, while increasing institutional links since September 11 - fighting wars together, intelligence sharing, exchanges between civilian and military officials and agreements such as the Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty - have whipped the alliance into tip-top shape. According to Lowy's Director of Studies Andrew Shearer, over the past decade, Australia has gone from being a ''second tier'' ally to one at the ''forefront'' of US thinking.

US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich - who has talked of the ''real affinity'' between his boss and Kevin Rudd - says Julia Gillard's relationship with Obama is in good nick, and trending up. He says they clicked from their first meeting, when a quick courtesy call turned into a 20-minute phone conversation.

''It's [a] very respectful, very warm relationship,'' he says. ''They really like each other. They have a similar sense of humour.''

Earlier this year, when Gillard and Obama visited a school together in Washington DC, the ambassador says that the two leaders bantered easily with each other - much of which the cameras were not there to see.

And yet despite the fact that the Prime Minister recently described the US as our ''closest ally and partner'' without batting an eyelid, Obama's two-day, one night trip, squeezed in between the APEC meeting in Hawaii and the East Asia Summit in Bali, does not provide a lot of face time with the man who cried ''Yes, we can''.

In a trip described as ''whistlestop'' by some sections of the international media, Obama will meet privately with Julia Gillard and ''briefly'' with Tony Abbott, before addressing Parliament in Canberra and Australian troops in Darwin. Then it's on to Bali. Macquarie University US politics and international relations lecturer Dr Lloyd Cox says we shouldn't be too offended by the shortness of the trip. ''This is par for the course,'' he says. ''The US President just has such an excruciatingly heavy schedule of engagements,'' Cox says.

Speaking from his office at the US Embassy, Bleich says the trip is a celebration of the relationship, as we clock 60 years since signing the ANZUS Treaty.

''I'd like to see us being able to appreciate what we've accomplished together,'' he said, noting how peaceful and prosperous the Asia Pacific has become since 1945.

But it's not just about mutual back patting.

''I think the second thing will be to talk about where to go next and not just rest on our laurels,'' Bleich says.

There is certainly no shortage of issues to discuss. The Prime Minister's Office says they do not reveal the agenda for bilateral discussions, but, when announcing the visit, Gillard mentioned the global economy and ''transition'' in Afghanistan (made all the more pressing with recent attacks by Afghan soldiers on Australian and US troops) as key issues.

With the situation in Iran reaching increasingly worrying levels it is also likely to be a topic of conversation.

As a former foreign affairs adviser to Howard, Shearer has sat in on similar meetings, and says the leaders will probably compare notes on the recent G20 and APEC meetings as well as the upcoming East Asia Summit. Shearer adds that in his experience, the President and Prime Minister would never meet without talking about Indonesia either.

However, given the recent opportunities for the leaders to talk privately at big international meetings, former diplomat and foreign affairs author Bruce Grant thinks that what Obama says publicly will be more important than what goes on behind closed doors.

The White House has signalled that in his address to Parliament, Obama will talk about the bilateral relationship as well as his economic and security agenda in the Asia Pacific. His Darwin leg is also widely tipped to see a major announcement on US military posture, including the basing of US Marines at Robertson Barracks. ''Both countries will be very careful to avoid the ''B'' word,'' Shearer says. But the new arrangements are also likely to include increased US access to some of Australia's naval facilities, air bases, the pre-positioning of equipment for disaster relief and more extensive use of Australia's plentiful training facilities.

If something like this is announced, it will be the ''most significant thing'' to happen in the alliance in the last few decades, Shearer says.

Beyond the talking points and defence posturing, symbolism will be the key thing to come of the trip.

''It's a periodical ritual reaffirmation of the US-Australia relationship,'' Cox says.

In more cynical terms, Sydney University United States Studies Centre Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor suggests that ''warm, fuzzy feelings'' will be the main by-product of the whistlestop.

Amid the strategic imperatives, there is a touch of ''neediness'' on Australia's part, he says. ''From the Australian side, we don't want to be forgotten. It's reassurance on our behalf.''

The US know this all too well. This week during the White House press briefing on the President's sojourn to the Asia Pacific, a journalist asked why Obama didn't take the day he's devoting to downtime in Hawaii and tack it onto his visit in Australia (given he had cancelled twice before). ''They're, as you know, sensitive about this.''

The no-shows before this were something of a reality check for Australia, O'Connor says. Even though Obama had pressing reasons for staying at home in March and June last year, he has taken more than 12 months to make a new date.

In the reverse, Gillard, like all Australian prime ministers before her, didn't waste much time getting over to Washington DC earlier this year.

Cox adds that even though our newspapers are full of news about the US, the US does not carry anywhere near the same amount of news about us - indeed Obama's travel plans for Australia have only been reported in passing in the northern hemisphere.

''That probably tells you something,'' he says.

However, Shearer is dismissive of suggestions that the relationship is one-sided, arguing that when one country is a middle power and the other country is a super power with 15 times the population, there are bound to be some imbalances. ''That really misses the point,'' he says.

Nevertheless, academics like Cox and O'Connor say there is still little critical examination of Australia's US alliance - both in terms of its trajectory, the priority we place on it at the expense of other relationships and whether tying in so closely with America's foreign policy actually suits Australia's needs and outlook.

As any of the thousands of Australian students studying international relations could tell you, since we switched ''great and powerful'' mates from Great Britain to the US in the 1940s, America has been our numero uno for both safety and economic reasons - and that's that.

The idea that the US, as a world superpower that shares a similar culture and values to us, would come to our rescue should we need it, holds an incredibly powerful place in our national psyche. According to the Lowy poll, 78per cent of respondents also felt like we share ''many'' common values and ideals with the US. Only 21 per cent thought Australia was able to defend itself without assistance from the US.

''It is a bit hard to wean yourself away from that,'' Grant says. While there has been a dissenting ''deputy sheriff'' thread in Australia's foreign policy discussions for decades, arguing we should be more independent and Asia-focused, the primacy of the US is not really questioned.

''The political establishment, including a lot of academics, don't ask really critical questions about the nature of the relationship,'' Cox says.

Indeed, while much is made of Australia's ''special relationship'' with the US, we don't often acknowledge that the US is not monogamous. It has ''special relationships'' with a bevy of other countries, from Canada to Great Britain, Japan and Israel. ''America's only special relationship is with itself,'' O'Connor says.

In a manner similar to the way the Queen complicates the republic debate at a popular level, Australia's US alliance is complicated by matters that have little to do with strategic outlooks, treaties or diplomatic exchanges. ''Any American president who visits Australia is the subject of a lot curiosity,'' Shearer says.

True, this can be attributed to people's respect for the alliance and a keenly felt historical connection to a country that saved our bacon (and Brisbane Line) in World War II.

But the sheer power associated with the office is also fascinating. People around the world associate the US president as an ''agent of change,'' O'Connor says. Even if the president is subject to the whims of the Congress and a host of other structural factors, ''The Leader of the Free World'' is the kind of tagline that makes people take you very seriously.

In combination with this, the ''soap opera'' quality of US politics - wherein personality dominates and we follow the drawn-out presidential races as if we were following a television show - engages people. This fascination not only makes us familiar with US politicians like Obama, it also makes us care about them, O'Connor says.

And even among the pantheon of US presidents, Obama is a special case.

As a history-making, rhetorically gifted candidate, Obama captured global attention in 2007-08. This was very much the case in Australia where we supported his election at a ratio of about five to one, according to the Lowy Institute.

He may not relish the comparison, but like Jimmy Carter, these days Obama is more popular outside America than he is at home - where there are now grave doubts about a second term. Despite the fact the shine has well and truly worn off the man who came to power promising hope, change and social media jazz, he remains extremely popular around the world.

A recent survey by Transatlantic Trends (a Washington DC-based think tank) found that 75per cent of Europeans surveyed across 12 countries approved of Obama on international affairs. This is far higher than the President's most recent Gallup approval rating of 43 per cent at home.

Gallup figures - across 116 countries - also show the median approval rating of US leadership is at 47 per cent, up from 34 per cent in 2008 under George W. Bush.

Grant concedes that Obama has disappointed people in the US - and has failed to live up to some of his lofty promises. But it is easier for people outside America to see that he has had the Congress and economy stacked against him.

''It think it's very understandable,'' he says, adding, ''he has an insistent reasonableness about him.''

And in Australia - where we have been tenterhooking for more than 12 months for a presidential trip - it's unlikely that anyone is going to care about US unemployment figures, congressional politics or even questions about the direction of Australian foreign policy next week. As Grant says, ''His star power is still there.''