Obama Plans More Trips to the Motherland

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  • JOHANNESBURG (AP) — President Barack Obama promised to visit his father’s homeland — Kenya — before the end of his presidency, but of the 51 country visits Obama made the last four years, America’s first black president spent less than a day in sub-Saharan Africa. That could now change.

    Presidential travel trends suggest Obama is likely to spend more time in Africa in his second term, a presidential historian said. Freed of domestic campaign politics, second-term presidents can travel more in a continent that has less strategic importance than Europe and Asia. A rising terror threat in Mali has also heightened the region’s profile.

    And then there’s the promise: “I’m positive that before my service as president is completed I will visit Kenya again,” Obama said in a June 2010 interview with Kenya’s state broadcaster.

    That statement should mean a lot, because presidents don’t make such promises lightly, said Brendon Doherty, an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy who studies presidential travel patterns.

    “Presidents do take special pleasure in traveling to places where they have ancestral ties,” Doherty said, noting visits by Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and even Obama to Ireland, where each had family ties. “Given the large role that Africa plays in the family history of President Obama, I’d be really surprised if he didn’t travel there in the second term.”

    Both Clinton and President George W. Bush took extended trips through Africa in their second terms. Clinton visited six countries in sub-Saharan Africa; Bush visited five. Obama’s only visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president was a stopover of less than 24 hours in Ghana. While a U.S. Senator, Obama visited Ethiopia and Kenya, where he has several relatives.

    “He is a Kenyan who many people want to see in person. I am proud that he is a Kenyan and that he is the president of a superpower,” said Sam Ochieng, a political leader in Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera.

    Laura Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College who runs a blog called Texas in Africa, said Africa is a low priority for most American presidents because of geopolitical interests and historical ties, “and that was the case in the Obama administration.” She added, though, that Africa is becoming more important to U.S. foreign policy interests.

    Even that one trip to Ghana was better than some predecessors. Clinton did not travel to sub-Saharan Africa in his first term, and Reagan never did. President George H.W. Bush traveled to Somalia; President Jimmy Carter, the first president to go to sub-Saharan Africa while in office, traveled to Nigeria.

    An Associated Press review of presidential travel shows Europe and North America got the most visits during the Carter-to-Obama period. France led with 24 visits; the U.K. had 23; Canada and Germany had 20; Mexico and Italy had 19.

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