LONDON - The United Kingdom rolled out the red carpet and all its considerable majesty Tuesday for President Obama, as he and Michelle Obama launched a two-day state visit that will pivot quickly to more sober discussions of the U.S.-Europe alliance.
First, however, the president and the first lady spent Tuesday reveling in the kind of pomp and ceremony that the English do better than anyone else, from a formal welcome by colorful guards to an overnight stay at Buckingham Palace and a lavish state dinner.
They arrived at the palace to the cheers of onlookers as they were greeted by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The queen showed the Obamas around their six-room suite in the 775-room palace, a suite last used by the queen's grandson Prince William and his bride on their wedding night last month.
"It may not be the same bed," said a palace aide. "It is the same suite."
After meeting briefly with the young newlyweds, the Obamas were formally welcomed outside on the palace's west terrace. Members of the Scots Guards - with their familiar red uniforms and high black furry hats - lined up in front of him while the pipes and drums of the Scots Guards behind them played "The Star-Spangled Banner." Throughout the ceremony, the sunlit sky reverberated with the steady cannon pounding out a 41-gun salute.
The two heads of state also exchanged gifts. The Obamas gave the queen a collection of rare memorabilia and photographs highlighting her parents' 1939 visit to the United States. The queen gave the Obamas a bound volume of facsimiles of letters from U.S. presidents to Queen Victoria and an antique brooch with coral roses.
At the state dinner at the palace, the 170 guests included British airline mogul Richard Branson and Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson. Obama, in white tie and tails, and the queen entered to the sounds of "God Save the Queen." The president sat between the queen and Prince Charles' wife, Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall. Prince Philip escorted Michelle Obama, who was wearing a white gown.
In the queen's toast, she said that when the United States and the United Kingdom stand together, "our people and other people of goodwill around the world will be more secure and prosperous." The bond between the nations, she said, is "tried, tested, and, yes, special."
Obama saluted the queen in turn and the "special relationship" between the countries. Quoting Shakespeare, he toasted: "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."
Obama's state visit is only the second for a president since the queen took the throne. George W. Bush made one in 2003.