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WASHINGTON – President Obama shares his family roots and the color of his skin with much of the African continent. The result: Africans had enormous expectations when Obama was first elected 4½ years ago.
Yet he’s never expressed much of an interest in African policy. He’s barely set foot there since becoming the first black U.S. president. On the continent, euphoria over his triumph quickly turned to disappointment as Obama failed to pay high-profile attention to their part of the globe.
Against that unique personal backdrop, Obama will travel to Africa on Wednesday to start a three-country, seven-day trip with his wife and daughters, a tour that will try to build on that complicated relationship.
Big crowds likely
Massive and enthusiastic crowds are likely to greet him at planned stops in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. He’ll visit some of the iconic touchstones of the continent’s racial history, including the spot in Senegal where slaves were shipped off to North America and the island prison in South Africa where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years.
He also will meet with government leaders in each nation and deliver a major speech to the continent while in South Africa. Throughout, he’ll stress investment, trade, energy and democracy. He isn’t expected to unveil any significant new programs.
For the man whose identity itself carried such a strong message to Africa, though, the trip also is designed to start making up for the neglect of sub-Saharan African in his first term.
“This is a deeply substantive trip and one that has been highly anticipated on the continent,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to the president. “And frankly, there’s been great disappointment that the president hasn’t traveled to Africa until this point, other than a brief stop in Ghana.”
Some Africa experts say Obama’s inaction can be excused because he confronted a series of domestic and international crises elsewhere, including the worst recession since the Great Depression and continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others say the president stayed clear of the continent to avoid assisting a part of the world where members of his father’s family still reside or calling more attention to the false charge that he was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to be president.
Regardless of the reason, after more than four years of Obama in the White House, Africans still think of Bill Clinton as the president who forged a long-lasting relationship with the continent and George W. Bush as the president who helped them tackle problems such as HIV/AIDS and malaria with increased U.S. aid. Coincidentally, Bush will be in Tanzania at the same time as Obama.