With President Obama set to leave for a weeklong stay in Africa, the goals of his trip — boosting economic partnerships and engagement with the U.S. and promoting democratic development in African nations — are in danger of being overshadowed.
In the days before his departure on Wednesday, much of the attention in Washington has focused instead on the high cost of the trip, estimated to be somewhere between $60 million and $100 million.
The cost is largely due to the large security force that will travel with the first family.
The trip’s price tag isn’t the only sideshow. Calls for Mr. Obama’s arrest from the Muslim Lawyers Association, a group based in Johannesburg, which objects to the administration’s drone program, also are garnering attention.
But the White House late last week vehemently defended the trip, which will last from Wednesday through July 3 and include stops in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
“I don’t think it’s in the U.S. interest for the United States to step aside and cede any potential for our country because we don’t want to move forward with presidential travel,” said Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, in a conference call with reporters on Friday. “There’s nothing that can make an impact more in terms of our foreign policy and our economic and security interests than the president of the United States coming” to Africa.
The White House also brushed aside the calls for Mr. Obama’s arrest, with Mr. Rhodes saying that counterterrorism and drone strikes won’t be specific topics of discussion during the president’s time in South Africa.
He did, however, stress that “on the continent, counterterrorism is an important priority for the United States.”
Providing yet another potential distraction, Mr. Obama’s trip to Africa will coincide with a visit to the continent from former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.
Mr. Bush, whose global health initiative is heavily focused on Africa, will go with his wife first to Zambia to visit a health center.
They’ll then travel to Tanzania, a visit that will overlap with Mr. Obama’s stop in that country.
The commander in chief and his predecessor aren’t scheduled to meet, but first lady Michelle Obama plans to attend the African First Ladies Summit with Mrs. Bush on July 2.
The White House late last week touted that event when releasing the Obamas’ public schedule. Their daughters, Sasha and Malia, also will be on the trip.
But in Washington, some lawmakers believe the administration is spending far too much money on the excursion while at the same time bemoaning the “sequester” budget cuts, which resulted in the cancellation of public White House tours.
Rep. George Holding, North Carolina Republican, said on the House floor earlier this month that the White House could have 1,350 weeks of White House tours “for the cost of this trip to Africa.”
Security for the trip reportedly will involve military cargo planes airlifting 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines, and three trucks to carry bulletproof glass to cover the windows where the president and his family will stay.