Obama, the Midterms and Africa–some thoughts from the hinterlands

G. Pascal Zachary has a very interesting take at Africa Works on the possible impact of the US midterm elections for Africa: “For Africans, an Obama defeat at polls can bring help”:

For Africa, an Obama presidency has been a disappointment. Rather than pay attention to the sub-Saharan because of his Kenyan heritage, Barack Obama has gone the other way: giving less attention to Africa than any other region of the world. Partly Obama’s inattention to African affairs reflects the crises of his presidency. Urgent problems are elsewhere. But the situation may be about to change and because of an unlikely reason: the defeat of Obama’s Democratic Party allies in Congress.

Next Tuesday’s polls could deliver a big setback to Obama: loss of control by the Democrats of at least one house of Congress. With the Republicans back in command, Obama will face new pressure on his administration to intervene directly in African affairs, and in ways the president has so far avoided.

A glimpse of the future direction of U.S. policy towards Africa can be seen by looking backwards — to the policies of former President George Bush. For complex reasons, the Bush administration engineered an increase in financial assistance to Africa, chiefly in the form of an enormous outlay — an estimated $80 billion over 10 years — to cover the cost of treating Africans with HIV-AIDs. In addition, President Bush engineered a peace deal in Sudan that effectively brought an end to one of the region’s oldest civil wars.

Much of the impetus for Bush’s activism in Africa came from the Christian right, which saw the Sudanese conflict through the prism of religious freedom; the conflict to Republicans was between a militant Islam and a persecuted Christian minority. Evangelicals flocked to the defense of south Sudan and, even now, are among the loudest advocates for legal partition of the country — and a more muscular U.S. role in overseeing a planned election next year that could lead to the creation of Africa’s newest nation.

Obama’s studied restraint towards African issues has permitted him to ignore the liberal wing of his own Democratic party, which would like his administration to push Sudan on the thorny question of the Darfur region as well as the country’s Christian south. With Republicans in control of the House, for instance, pressure for dramatic action will grow.

Nigeria is another large, troubled country that Obama has essentially ignored but his critics say he has done so to the detriment of long-term U.S. interests. Nigeria is the fifth largest source of foreign oil for the U.S., and the country of origin for the largest group of African immigrants in America. As most populous country in Africa, Nigeria has an economic weight that warrants American attention. But the country also contains the largest number of Muslims in any African country. And one of those Muslims last December was caught trying to blow up a plane, raising the profile of militant Islamic groups in Nigeria — and their potential connections with anti-American factions throughout the Muslim world.

President Obama has done little thinking about how to support the progessive in Nigeria. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has repeatedly warned that Nigeria’s government is dangerously derelict, but she’s offered no concrete proposals on aidiing the country, whose presidential election is only months away.

Thus, the possibility exists that Obama will face two African crises — in Sudan and Nigeria — and a Congress who wants his administration to take an active role in engaging the continent. Africans, frustrated privately with the president’s lack of attention to their region, likely will welcome a new approach, even if the approach comes in the wake of Obama’s political retreat.

While what Zachary says is accurate as far as it goes, it seems to me that African expectations for Obama were always misplaced and failed to account for both Obama’s main focus as a politician and the realities of the American political system and the American electorate.

In particular, in Kenya, I never thought that Obama’s decision to make a quick visit to Ghana rather than to Kenya should be seen so much as a criticism of Kenya’s political failings as a reflection of Obama’s needs as President of the US. Obama has been under vigorous, and quite effective, attack since the early part of his campaign from the right in the US for being too “Kenyan” and too much associated with Islam–and of course as actually both Kenyan and Muslim rather than American and Christian. This has only gotten worse as it has crawled out of the e-mail networks and blogosphere and into open discussion by current and former elected officials, the cover of Forbes and Glenn Beck. A state visit to Kenya with a riotous outpouring of welcome from Kenyans has always been the last thing he has needed in America, and has become more and more politically untenable as his popularity has slipped.

Beyond that, while Obama obviously has a personal connection to his African heritage, it has simply not been a big part of his direction as a politician. In general, Obama has been more involved and identified with domestic issues, working as a “community” poverty activist in Chicago and then going to law school to come back to Chicago to go into politics there. He was an American law professor teaching US Constitutional law and a lawyer working in civil rights areas. Aside from having little record in foreign policy in general, he did not chose to spend any length of time visiting, much less living, in Kenya or anywhere else in Africa.

There are a lot of American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, who have been more engaged over a period of years in African affairs and American policy in Africa. Even though his first foray into politics was in speaking in favor of divestment as a tool against South African apartheid as a student at Columbia this was not a deep engagement or a primary path he followed subsequently.

Sometimes I think that the most unique, and difficult, thing about Barak Obama’s background and identity as President is his status as the child, first and foremost, of an anthropologist. I personally think he is bright and observant, which gave him the tools to inspire and reassure voters worn down and fed up with the Bush-Cheney years in his 2008 campaign–and to fill the vacuum left when McCain defined himself as a politician by picking Palin. At the same time, the depth of his connection to most Americans is rather shallow and he is really fully part of no large base. While he is uniquely American he is also so cosmopolitan as to not really be fully “from” anywhere more specific.

The characteristics that made him so very much “not Bush” and carried him to victory against Hillary Clinton and the McCain-Palin ticket leave him very exposed and vulnerable as a leader now in a time of retrenchment, uncertainty of the future and nostalgia. In general terms, Americans have expected to personally relate to their presidents in modern times. In particular for Democrats, with the exception of Kennedy (who very narrowly if at all won against Nixon) we see agricultural Southern roots in Truman (who was in substantial part a farmer of Confederate ancestry in a Southern-looking part of Missouri), Johnson, Carter and Clinton (who didn’t have agricultural roots but came from and played on his background from small town Arkansas and he had a long track record as an Arkansas politician). Irrespective of anything else, electing a President, especially a Democrat, who grew up primarily in Honolulu where he attended an elite prep school, and then lived exclusively in our largest cities, Los Angeles as a student, then New York and Chicago as an adult, is unusual. (He never attended a public school except in Indonesia.) Reading his own description of his only campaign outside of Chicago before running for president makes it clear that visiting “downstate” Illinois was a cultural adventure of sorts.

Even though he embraced at some level his status as “black” as a teenager, even his background as an “African American” is very different from most African Americans in most of the United States. And for that matter, I have not seen any evidence that African Americans are as a whole are particularly engaged with or deeply knowlegeable about Africa or motivated politically by U.S.-African affairs at this point in time. Appealing to Latinos, seemingly much unwanted by Republicans now, will be an important part of a re-election calculus for Obama, and African affairs don’t seem to be particularly on the radar screen there.

If over the next two years he regains more confidence among white independents, primarily presumably on the basis of economic issues, and he is re-elected, then Obama, having completed his career as a candidate, might find the opportunity and motivation to deploy the advantages of his unique background to offer specific focused leadership on policy toward Africa that would appeal to both liberals and conservatives in Congress who will remain the primary consistent advocates in the meantime.

I say all of this as someone who does respect the President and appreciate many of his strengths. As a white Christian adoptive Southerner (who is obviously captivated by Africa) I find myself as more his defender than critic. Nonetheless, a little sobriety about what to expect from the man as a politician seems in order.

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