A large part of President Obama’s political power has always rested on who was willing to listen to his speeches.
His meteoric rise to the Senate and then the White House flowed from his ability to convincingly sketch out a vision that appealed to American voters tired of war and disillusioned by the partisan feuding that had engulfed the country’s politics. But over time, people tuned out as the slow economic recovery, protracted wars and even deeper partisanship made them less open to what the president had to say.
But in recent months, Obama has seemed to recover his voice and recapture some of his domestic audience by speaking in blunt terms about race and the need for social tolerance. That spirit was visible over the past week in Africa.
Obama seemed to be betting heavily on the idea that his words could spur political modernization on a continent still struggling to transcend old habits of violence and corruption that have held it back.
Obama — partly out of fiscal reality and partly out of ideology — has consistently emphasized that his administration is focused on building up Africa’s capacity to solve its own problems rather than just giving aid. In Kenya and Ethiopia, he made a concerted pitch for how Africans could chart a new destiny by changing their ways.
It was the latest example of how the president, bolstered by a series of recent domestic and foreign policy wins, seems to believe again in the power of his own voice.
Speaking at the African Union in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, Obama drew the most enthusiastic reaction when he went off-script, declaring that African leaders need to leave the political stage once their terms expired. His comments came just days after Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza won reelection in balloting that U.N. observers described as “not conducive for an inclusive free and credible electoral process.” Rwandan lawmakers are also studying whether they should revise the nation’s constitution so that President Paul Kagame can seek a third term.
“Now, let me be honest with you — I do not understand this,” Obama said as the audience laughed. “I love my work. But under our Constitution, I cannot run again.”
As the crowd laughed and clapped in approval, he repeated himself for emphasis. “I can’t run again. I actually think I’m a pretty good president — I think if I ran I could win. But I can’t. . . . And no one person is above the law. Not even the president.”
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs and was one of 20 lawmakers to accompany the president on the trip, said the audience’s response was “a reminder that President Obama is a unique voice in that as the only African American president, he is able to connect with and motivate and engage the broad run of the African populace on the issues that are both aspirational and very current and pressing.”
Todd Moss, who served in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs under President George W. Bush, said in an e-mail that it was a “good idea” for Obama to “use his bully pulpit on term limits. But I don’t see how that translates into a meaningful post-presidency leverage.”
The $5 million Ibrahim Prize, which aims to annually reward African leaders for good governance within three years of their leaving office, was supposed to serve as a powerful incentive for the continent’s leaders. But it has been awarded only five times since 2007, including an honorary award to Nelson Mandela.
None of the strongmen Obama was talking about were sitting in Mandela Hall as he spoke. The only head of state there was Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who took over when longtime leader Meles Zenawi died in 2012. And the calls of approval were loudest in the hall’s cheap seats, as opposed to the front where the continent’s dignitaries had gathered.
The administration has dutifully issued official statements each time a rigged African election has occurred; so far, they have not prompted any of the leaders in question to concede. But administration officials this week said they believe some leaders, such as Hailemariam, are now serious about pursuing political reform. And Obama clearly relished having a series of audiences who listened attentively to how Americans “keep on trying to perfect our union,” and how they could do the same.
Obama’s warm reception in East Africa also demonstrated the extent to which his persuasiveness is inexorably linked to his popularity: When his approval ratings dip, voters tend to tune him out — along with the conservatives who stopped listening to him long ago. It is that implacable GOP opposition that helps account for why, despite his recent political rebound, the president’s approval rating remains stuck in the 40s.
In some ways, Obama’s impact on Africa may be judged as much by what he does in his post-presidency as during his time in office. His foreign policy has been more defined by responding to threats and unrest in the Middle East and an intensified focus on Asia than on Africa, but he has enlisted the support of the private sector in launching three Africa initiatives — on electrification, agriculture and youth leadership. Coons noted that just as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have expanded their Africa legacies while out of office, Obama will probably do the same.
“He will bring with him significant investors” when he comes back to the continent during his post-presidency, Coons said.
And while he may just have completed the last Africa trip of his presidency, Obama made it clear to the audiences in Addis Ababa and Nairobi that he has many trips ahead of him.
While occupying the U.S. presidency has its perks, he observed Tuesday, so does giving it up.
“It means I can go take a walk. I can spend time with my family. I can find other ways to serve,” he said. “I can visit Africa more often.”
And the audience applauded in approval.