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On first day of European trip, Obama touches Irish roots

May 23, 2011|By Christi Parsons | Washington Bureau
(Kevin Lamarque / Reuters )

Reporting from Dublin, Ireland — President Obama arrived here Monday to begin a weeklong visit to Europe, trying to forge a common way forward with allies facing two wars, a Middle East in turmoil, and economies still struggling to recover from the 2008 collapse.

But before he gets down to the hard stuff, Obama will indulge in a bit of the Irish-roots politics so beloved by American presidents who trace their ancestry back to this island of emigrants. Shortly after arriving Monday morning, Obama visited Irish President Mary McAleese's residence, where he planted an oak tree -- not far from a sequoia planted by John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The White House staff and their hosts planned the one-day stop in Ireland around a drop-in visit to Moneygall, a one-pub village about 48 miles from Dublin on the road to Limerick. In 1850, a Moneygall shoemaker's son, Falmouth Kearney, joined the mass exodus fleeing the Irish famine in hopes of finding prosperity in America.

Photos: A snapshot of Obama's visit to Ireland

Now, 160 years later, his great-great-great grandson returns as president of the United States, to be welcomed by a tiny village that sees its own possibilities for prosperity in the connection.

It won’t be the first time. Whether greeting Irish American presidents such as Kennedy and Ronald Reagan or pouring a pint for Bill Clinton, the Irish have been eager to boast of their ties to the U.S. presidency. And presidents have been happy to go along with propping up an ethnic connection that could appeal to some voters. “There is special symbolism in going to the country of origin for many Americans of European immigrant descent,” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political science professor at Northwestern University.

Whether Obama’s Irish roots will help him politically at home is a stretch. Most discussion of Obama’s heritage has focused on the paternal side of his family and his Kenyan-born father. His Irish connection was not even unearthed until 2007, when Church of Ireland Rector Canon Stephen Neill found records that linked Kearney through five generations to Ann Dunham, the mother of the future president.

But the Irish government was also eager to have Moneygall on an itinerary that added a formal bilateral meeting between leaders only at the last minute, according to Irish media. Ireland is in the throes of a financial crisis brought on by a government bailout of a number of failing banks, and it has been forced to accept a bailout from its partners in the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The question of how to avoid financial collapse in countries such as Ireland, Greece and Portugal is foremost on the minds of European leaders, even as the bigger economies of Germany and France begin to show signs of stronger economic growth. The issue -- and protests against the austerity measures the financial crisis has triggered -- will form a large part of the agenda for the annual meeting of the Group of 8t industrialized countries, which begins Wednesday in the French coastal city of Deuville. 

Obama’s European tour, which includes a stop in London for a state dinner at Buckingham Palace and a visit to Warsaw, will also focus on how to handle a shared unease among allies about military campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya. Leaders from Europe and Canada will want to hear more details on the extent of the president’s planned drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan this summer, and on the prospects for transferring North Atlantic Treaty Organization responsibility for security to the Afghan government in the coming years.

There will also be questions about the way ahead on the air campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. Weeks of bombing have damaged Kadafi’s war machine but not been enough to persuade him to give up power. The Europeans have consistently pressed for a more forceful U.S. military role, something the Pentagon wants little part of. The White House has so far resisted getting much deeper into a campaign it joined for political reasons but regards as much more of a European fight.;

Finally, there will be questions about Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East, including his attempt to push the Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations. The administration is anxious to talk European leaders out of endorsing a planned Palestinian appeal to the United Nations for a vote granting statehood, a move that would likely embarrass and isolate Israel. Part of the motive behind Obama’s tough words directed at Israel in recent days has been to show European and other world leaders that negotiations remain a viable alternative to a declaration of Palestinian statehood, a case the president is expected to make this week.

Meanwhile, White House advance teams have scouted several sites in Warsaw that could provide a symbolic setting for Obama to underscore his commitment to Israel’s security. Among the possibilities is the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, the urban prison where Polish Jews were maltreated, randomly killed and eventually deported to be murdered during World War II.

“By visiting Warsaw he is trying to signal to Americans of Jewish descent that he has not forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust, nor will he permit a tragic fate to befall modern-day Israel,” said Tom Whalen, a political science professor at Boston University.

Photos: A snapshot of Obama's visit to Ireland

christi.parsons@latimes.com

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