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If Obama shares his thoughts on 'Brexit,' will Brits care?

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Evan Vucci/AP/File

(Read caption) President Obama speaks during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015.

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President Obama is to visit Britain next week, and the White House confirmed Thursday that, if asked, the president will gladly offer his thoughts on whether Britain should remain in the European Union.

The comments came the day before campaigning officially kicks off in Britain, with groups both for and against a "Brexit" swinging into action Friday, but almost a week remains before Mr. Obama is to touch down on British soil.

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While the president will steer clear of telling British citizens what they should do during his London visit, he will likely offer his thoughts on what outcome would most suit the United States. And as a popular figure there, his opinion may just sway a few voters.

"Brits have enormous respect for Obama," says Xenia Wickett of Chatham House, a London-based international affairs think tank, in a telephone interview. "There are concerns about US policy and the direction it's going, but there's enormous respect for Obama."

Various polls give an indication of the high regard in which the president is held, both in continental Europe and across Britain. A 2015 Pew Research poll put British confidence in Obama to do the right thing in foreign affairs at 76 percent, compared with about 30 percent for his predecessor, George W. Bush.

"There is always a reticence to suggest to a sovereign country what they should be doing and what's good for them," says Ms. Wickett, who heads Chatham's US and the Americas Program. "There is not a reticence to explain what US interests are, and it's clearly in the US interest that [Britain] stays in the EU.”

And why, exactly, is it so much better for Britain to remain a part of the EU, as far as the US is concerned?

Two main reasons stand out, as Wickett explains.

First, within Europe, Britain's interests, values, and perspectives most closely align themselves to those of the US. So, in a sense, it could best represent American interests on the continent. 

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Second, the EU could be more effective in the way it operates, and Britain is the state most likely to push for reform. Perhaps most pertinent to the US in this regard is still the question often attributed to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?"

The referendum on whether Britain will stay or leave the EU will take place on June 23, and current polls indicate that there is little way of knowing which way it will fall, with a Financial Times poll tracker putting 43 percent in favor of staying and 42 percent wanting to leave.

"The only certainty is the absence of certainty," writes Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. "Not only is there no plausible prediction of the referendum's outcome, there is no prediction of the outcome of the outcome."


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