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Obama in Africa: A unique presidential visit

As President Obama arrives in Ghana, his background brings advantages -- as well as political perils. His visit to the West African nation will be low-key and brief.

July 11, 2009|Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — President Obama's conversation with Africa is unlike any dialogue in history between that continent and the U.S. government for one reason: It is being led by a black American president with African roots.

And Obama, who often cites his father's homeland of Kenya, clearly sees his background as an advantage in pursuing new policies. Hours before arriving in Ghana on Friday for his first presidential trip to sub-Saharan Africa, Obama said he understands the continent's struggles in "very personal terms."

"I have family members who live in villages . . . where hunger is real," he said. Already, he had told an Africa-focused website in a recent interview that he is "probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who's occupied my office."

But even as he embraces the symbolic power of his trip and speaks of his built-in advantages, Obama faces a flip side: Working on Africa as a black president comes with political perils at home.

As a candidate, Obama sought to avoid alienating skeptical white voters. He was forced to fend off false rumors that he was a Muslim.

Now some Africa advocates, including Obama supporters, are seeing early signs that the new president is falling short of their admittedly high expectations, and some suspect that it is because of his race.

They cite the brief, in-and-out nature of his visit today to Ghana, and what they say is a slow-to-form policy toward troubled zones such as Somalia, Zimbabwe and Sudan.

The White House chose Ghana because it is an example of a successful African democracy. And Obama's defenders say the visit is one of several moves that emphasize the seriousness of his policy.

But critics see the West African country as an overly simple backdrop. They hoped that Obama, based on his background and the depth of knowledge and concern he showed during an Africa tour as a senator in 2006, would dive headlong into vexing questions of extremism, poverty, AIDS and corruption in many parts of Africa.

Nicole Lee, executive director of TransAfrica Forum, a leading advocacy group, said there has been an "absolute passivity" in White House work so far on Africa's hardest problems.

"There was an assumption that this president, because of who he is, would lead us to a new policy," Lee said.

"While it may be more difficult for an African American president to do it, that is the burden of being the first African American president," she added. "It is also more difficult for an African American president to ignore one of his most important constituencies, and that is African Americans who care deeply about Africa."

Africa was a political bonanza for President George W. Bush, who by this point in his first term had hosted six African leaders in Oval Office meetings and dispatched his secretary of State for a multi-country tour of the continent. By boosting U.S. spending to fight AIDS and poverty in Africa, Bush won enthusiastic support from many black churches he was trying to bring into the Republican fold and from the evangelical white churches that were among his core supporters.

Obama has hosted two African leaders at the White House and he conferred with several others Friday on the sidelines of the Group of 8 economic summit in Italy. He has proposed additional funding for maternal and child health, and food security programs.

White House officials say Obama will return later for more robust visits, and that Ghana was selected as the first trip to showcase an example of a well-governed democracy and a part of Africa rarely seen by Americans and other Westerners.

Yet his stay in Ghana will last less than 24 hours, and instead of delivering an open-air address to a massive crowd similar to one given there by President Clinton in 1998, the centerpiece event is a speech in the relatively staid setting of the country's parliament.

Obama will take his family for a low-key visit to a fort that was a slave depot. And a departure ceremony will include some local culture such as drumming, but the event will be tightly controlled, limited to invited guests.

It is an itinerary, some say, that signals the White House's efforts to walk a careful political line.

"Anything that's got to do with blacks, from Harlem to Harare, will have to involve the old behind-the-back pass with a wink," said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, who supported Obama's presidential campaign and worked with the Bush administration on Africa policy.

One former U.S. official on Africa who has worked under Democratic and Republican administrations said that many advocates believe Obama's political advisors want to make sure Africa is not viewed as an overriding priority.

"I don't think they see how they're going to get any political points by focusing on Africa," said the former official, who is in touch with Obama administration aides and requested anonymity to speak candidly.

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