WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When President Barack Obama made his first extended trip to Africa last year as the world’s most powerful leader, he tried to assuage a continent largely disappointed in its famous favorite son.
The first African-American president, Obama had given scant focus to his father’s ancestral home, drawing unflattering comparisons with George W. Bush, whose efforts to fight HIV/AIDS made him a hero on the continent.
Now more than a year later, with the vast majority of Africa’s leaders attending a summit in Washington at Obama’s invitation, the U.S. president still faces a challenge matching the Africa legacy of his White House predecessor.
During the eight years of Bush’s presidency, aid for development of sub-Saharan Africa quadrupled to $6.7 billion, according to J. Peter Pham, the Atlantic Council Africa Center director.
It has remained about the same under Obama despite a 20 percent drop in overseas aid overall since he took office in 2009.
Born in Hawaii to a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama may not want to be seen to favor a part of the world because of his family origins, South African President Jacob Zuma said on Monday.
“Obama’s background has influenced his dealing with Africa. It has made him tread carefully,” Zuma said at the National Press Club. “I believe he could have done more. But I think he was aware of this point and therefore he has navigated that situation very well.”
Prominent members of Obama’s Democratic party, including Hillary Clinton over the weekend, have praised the Republican Bush’s Africa initiatives, even while taking issue with most of his other policies.
Although Bush left the international stage unpopular in many parts of the world, he maintained an exalted status in Africa thanks to the programs he started while in office.
“Every place I have traveled in Africa, President Bush is an absolute hero and is credited with saving millions of people’s lives,” said U.S. Representative Karen Bass, a Democrat who is her party’s leader in the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on Africa.
“(Obama) has had a number of initiatives that I have no doubt long after he leaves the presidency will be legacy issues in the same way that PEPFAR is for President Bush,” she said.
PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief launched in 2003, provided billions of dollars for antiretroviral drugs and treatment in Africa, and Bush is credited with dramatically reducing AIDS deaths there.
He also started the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which assists countries with good governance.
Obama has carried on both initiatives, while starting programs to promote trade and provide electricity.
Analysts, former Bush administration officials, lawmakers, and leaders from the continent say this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit signals a positive shift in the U.S. relationship with Africa and Obama’s engagement with it.
“The president, who has been criticized for not doing more for Africa by many, is really trying to step up his game,” said Stephen Hadley, Bush’s former national security adviser.
Obama’s administration has tried to shift the focus to economic opportunities on the continent.
It is an approach more akin to that taken by Bush’s predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton, who signed the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which dropped trade restrictions on more than 6,000 exports to America from 35 African countries.
At the meeting called by Obama in Washington, U.S. and African companies and the World Bank pledged $17 billion on Tuesday in new investment in construction, energy and information technology projects in Africa.
The shift is in part a response to China’s investment in the continent, which surpassed the United States in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner.
African leaders are happy with the U.S. shift to investment.
“We want to move from aid donor and aid recipient ... to the next level now of investments and trade,” Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said during the summit’s business forum. “I think this time we will make it.”
Many acknowledge that Obama could not have met the exceedingly high expectations that Africans had when he took office. Grappling with his African-American identity while dealing with the wars and economic crisis he inherited from Bush made prioritizing Africa tricky.
“We had the most intense financial crisis since the Great Depression, and ... with very boisterous voices on the Far Right questioning where he was born, I think there were a lot of constraints on his ability to engage in Africa,” said Witney Schneidman, an Africa adviser at Covington & Burling LLP and a former adviser on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“As the economy stabilized and with his re-election, I think (Obama) became freer to pursue some of the issues he really wanted to pursue, and clearly Africa was one of them.”
Should success elude Obama on other fronts, he may find more time to focus on Africa during the remainder of his presidency and beyond. He has promised to visit Kenya before leaving office and has signaled he would focus a chunk of his post-presidency helping young black men in the United States succeed.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Rebecca Elliott, and Edith Honan; Editing by Howard Goller