Los Angeles Times

New attitude on Kenya trip

Obama’s long-delayed visit reflects his buoyant outlook after a string of successes.

- By Christi Parsons christi.parsons @latimes.com

WASHINGTON — President Obama arrived Friday at an overseas destinatio­n he has avoided throughout his presidency: Kenya, homeland of his father and cradle of conspiracy theories about the American president’s personal identity.

His visit is a rejection of those debunked stories about whether he was born in the United States and the prejudice that underlies them, and gives Obama a chance to cross the ancestral homecoming off his presidenti­al bucket list — or his “rhymes with bucket” list, as he recently joked with staffers.

That he even made the joke is a sign of a new attitude on display this summer by the buttoned-down president, a cocksure bravado following his good run in recent months.

His recent successes on Iran, trade, Obamacare and other issues and an accompanyi­ng uptick in public approval validate for White House aides their working assumption that Obama can advance an uncompromi­sing agenda with little backlash or consequenc­e.

“Now that he is looking at the last 18 months, now that he doesn’t care what Congress thinks, he is completely free to do what he wants to do and say what he wants to say,” said Jon Favreau, Obama’s former lead speechwrit­er. “He’s mindful he’s got 18 months. He’s got to leave it all out on the field.”

That approach appears to be part of what led to Obama’s decision to finally travel to Kenya.

Almost every year during his term, one aide said, someone in the White House suggested putting the trip on Obama’s schedule. The prospects were complicate­d in part by pending Internatio­nal Criminal Court charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta stemming from violence after the 2007-08 election cycle, but the charges were dismissed in December.

More than that, the president wanted to be careful not to make the trip appear personal, or as though he might favor the country where his father grew up. Instead, according to one senior administra­tion official, Obama wanted to emphasize the U.S. relationsh­ip with the entire continent of Africa.

Now, the feeling among Obama and his senior advisors is that his foreign policy is well-known, and the perception of favoritism is no longer a risk. Obama has been to Africa three other times and visited several African countries.

The trip to Kenya strikes some analysts as symbolic of Obama’s confidence as a two-term president with a number of accomplish­ments and no future political ambitions.

“There was so much unwarrante­d speculatio­n, people trying to pretend that this was his birthplace, questionin­g his citizenshi­p,” said Steven Taylor, professor in the American University School of Public Affairs, who writes about race and political culture in the U.S. and Africa. “One of the reasons might be that he just avoided this so that wouldn’t be a controvers­ial issue when he was up for reelection.

“When he was running before, he emphasized his mother’s ties to Kansas, the heartland,” Taylor said. “He was trying to let people know of his long historical roots in America.

“People know who he is now.”

Among the public, Obama’s ratings stabilized in the spring and early summer around 46%, according to Gallup researcher­s. American opinions of presidents in office for a long time are mostly solid and resistant to change, and Gallup noted in its July report that the Iran deal hadn’t had any noticeable effect on how the country thinks Obama is doing his job.

The White House has taken note of his popular support, particular­ly its stability, and showcased his increasing­ly no-holds-barred approach in his sales pitch for the deal he struck to neuter Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and in an appearance on “The Daily Show” this week, Obama compared the deal’s opponents to backers of the Iraq war, an assertion the White House previously backed away from when it provoked a fury.

“He does not want to leave here and think that there is a single issue he held back on, a single comment he wanted to make that he was too afraid to make,” Favreau observed. “And to me, that’s what he’s doing right now.”

Obama’s new brashness is on display in small ways too. He recently admonished an East Room heckler who confronted him loudly in what Obama called “my house,” and soon after that called out journalist­s who were being clumsy around “my stuff ” in the Oval Office.

He appeared to be joking in both cases, but the quips stood in contrast to his careful insistence of past years about how his residence is the people’s house and he is just a renter.

More telling was Obama’s news conference after the announceme­nt of the Iran deal, which he insisted remain almost exclusivel­y focused on the accord. He openly scoffed at a reporter who implied he was “content” to let Americans remain imprisoned in Iran while the internatio­nal community prepared to lift sanctions on the country in exchange for its limiting its nuclear activity. He refused to answer a question about Donald Trump.

“Overall, I don’t feel particular­ly guarded,” Obama told “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. “I just had a press conference about Iran where not only did I stay there for an hour, I said, ‘Who else has got a question?’”

Favreau thinks Obama’s single-minded focus on his goals is a basic feature of the president’s personalit­y, and that he has always aimed to speak plainly about his vision for the country. After all, he said, Obama campaigned on the idea of changing Washington, on “speaking hard truths, telling people what they need to hear.”

Once he was in the White House, the political climate tempered his behavior, Favreau said. New presidents always learn to take some measure of care when they speak, as their wording can crash markets, inf lame allies or even start wars.

“I finally know what I’m doing,” Obama told Stewart.

“There’s no doubt that you get better as you go along,” he said. “It’s like any other job. You get more experience. But what I do think has happened is that a lot of the work we did early starts bearing fruit later.”

 ?? Evan Vucci
Associated Press ?? PRESIDENT OBAMA’S half-sister, Auma Obama, greets him at the airport as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta looks on. Obama appears no longer worried that such a trip might be construed as too personal.
Evan Vucci Associated Press PRESIDENT OBAMA’S half-sister, Auma Obama, greets him at the airport as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta looks on. Obama appears no longer worried that such a trip might be construed as too personal.

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