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President Obama wraps up efficient Africa trip

There were no safaris or dancing, but instead a focused itinerary for President Obama that included paying homage to Nelson Mandela and one major aid program.

July 02, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • President Obama and former President George W. Bush make their way to speak with family members of victims of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
President Obama and former President George W. Bush make their way to speak… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — On his last day on the continent, President Obama stood at a memorial here, head bowed in silence. He watched a Marine lay a wreath in honor of victims of a 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in this city on the Indian Ocean. He made no remarks.

And with that, one of his last appearances on his weeklong tour of Africa, Obama ended his trip much as it began — quietly.

Obama's first tour of the continent as the first African American president was less a whirlwind swing marked by places of personal meaning and displays of political energy than a carefully planned trek to stops familiar to other U.S. presidents. Obama's trip included remembrances of great leaders and reflections on history, but was largely absent the typical cultural scenes: no safaris, no dancing, no posing with tribesmen.

That subdued tenor was to some extent because of a twist of timing. Obama's trip came as Nelson Mandela lay gravely ill in a Pretoria hospital and much of South Africa was consumed by news of the beloved elder statesman's condition and ugly disputes between Mandela family members.

The president's sojourn in South Africa became a two-day tribute to a man he calls a personal hero, culminating in a visit to Mandela's former jail cell and a speech calling on Africans to keep pushing for social change.

But the aura of earnestness was also a nod to the reality of tight economic times. With the U.S. economy still in a slump, the White House was mindful of the appearance of staging trips that look like vacations. As officials finalized Obama's plan, the Washington Post reported that the trip could cost $60 million to $100 million, a reflection of the massive security operation that envelops the president in the post-Sept. 11 era. The report put the White House on high alert for images that might be seen as frivolous globe-trotting.

Obama's three-country itinerary was striking compared with some other presidential tours. In 1998, President Clinton visited six countries in 12 days, which included a day-and-a-half safari in Botswana. That trip cost $42.8 million, not including the Secret Service's expenses, which are classified, according to a government report to Congress.

The first U.S. president to visit South Africa, Clinton was accompanied by a delegation of prominent African Americans and addressed the country's Parliament and Mandela, who was then president.

President George W. Bush went twice to Africa. In 2003, he drew smaller crowds than those that had flocked to see Clinton. But his commitment to fight AIDS in Africa helped make him popular. When he returned in 2008, Bush declared that Liberia felt like "home" and in Monrovia broke into a jubilant dance with traditional dancers.

Obama, in one of his few moments working a crowd, briefly grooved with a drum circle in Senegal. The president beamed and began to sway a bit — but stopped short of dancing.

The president, who visited Ghana for a day in 2009, traveled with First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, and niece Leslie Robinson. They moved at a stately pace through Africa, opting not to fly at night. The seven-day trip included almost three full travel days.

There would be no safari, only an announcement of aid to stop rhinoceros poaching. The closest Obama got to seeing rural Africa was a chat with two farmers who were brought to the lawn of the president's luxury hotel in Dakar, Senegal, to explain agricultural improvement programs. "And I know that millet and maize and fertilizer doesn't always make for sexy copy," he said, asking reporters to give the event some coverage.

The president's visit included only flashes of Obama's ties to the continent. As he arrived in Tanzania on Monday, he noted, "Obviously, my family on my father's side is from East Africa. They spent some time actually in Tanzania." But he did not explain further. His father was born and is buried in Kenya. His step-grandmother still lives there.

In one strange this-is-your-life moment, Senegal's President Macky Sall toasted Obama at an official dinner by introducing a man who Sall claimed was a minor, and unnamed, character in Obama's 1995 memoir "Dreams From My Father." Although Obama enthusiastically shook the man's hand, it wasn't clear that the president remembered him.

More recent figures in Obama's biography featured more prominently in the trip. As he toured Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, Obama often found himself and his policies compared to his predecessor. Then, on Tuesday, Bush was at Obama's side, for the memorial of the embassy bombing.

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