I dismissed the first two Africans who told me they preferred former President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama as anomalies. The 2008 news reports of cheering Africans had been indelible, particularly from Kenya, where Obama's father was born. Traveling in Kenya in 2011 only reinforced for me his seeming popularity: Some parts of Nairobi seemed to have a café named after Obama on every corner.
Likewise, traveling in Uganda last month I saw children wearing soccer jerseys bearing the president's name. A delivery van for a Kampala fast-food chain called "Obama Mobile Take Away" sports as part of its logo a photo of the president chowing down.
It was the next two Africans who raised the subject that prompted me to question the popular wisdom. Their views sprang from opposite spectrums of African society and say important things about how the rest of the world views the American presidency.
One is a university student in Uganda, an East African in his twenties. He's worked for a high-tech design studio and is computer savvy. He follows Western media avidly via Facebook and other sites. The other is a retired pastor in Nigeria, an aging West African. He lives in a home that's often without hot water and electricity. He does not use the internet at all but follows the news via the BBC and what he hears on the street corner.
After the university student made negative comments about Obama, I asked directly what he thought of the president, and he said simply: "Bush was better." Why? I asked. Bush understood the needs of Africa, he explained, and showed compassion by not only visiting Africa but also committing U.S. funds to the fight against malaria and HIV/AIDS.
Don't you think that as an African-American, President Obama has a better understanding of what Africans face? I said. "That's what everyone liked to say," he replied, "but we here could see the difference. ... Obama doesn't really understand the poor, and he doesn't respect Christians here and what they think." That touches on a subject little covered in the U.S. press. While American media have reported at length on a controversial law (just reintroduced) in Uganda's parliament to further criminalize homosexual behavior (already against the law), little has been reported about coercion from U.S. diplomats under the Obama administration to pressure Uganda and other African nations to liberalize laws on homosexuality, marriage, abortion, and the like. In Kenya U.S. ambassador Michael Rannenberger openly lobbied for constitutional provisions to liberalize that country's abortion law-something African Christians haven't forgotten.
"The word freedom has deceived [the Obama administration]," the Nigerian pastor told me, "and under this freedom they are fighting with God, and asking us to fight God." I didn't ask the Nigerian pastor to compare and contrast Obama and Bush, but he did anyway: "I like George Bush. He has courage. He was the only one ready to deal with the Muslim world."
Four years ago the widespread perception was that a multicultural president eager to make peace and not war would boost America's standing in the world. "There's no question that Sen. Obama winning would have an impact on America's image for the better. It would boost America's image, it would give people a sense of the promise of America," said CNN/Newsweek analyst Fareed Zakaria in 2008.
But a growing number of analysts who cheered Obama and criticized Bush are voicing alarm over what analyst Daniel Pletka calls a "rudderless" national foreign policy. Robert Kagan, writing in Foreign Policy, said Obama's failure to work out an agreement with Iraq to maintain U.S. troops there "may prove to be one of the gravest errors of Obama's first term, for which either he or his successor will pay a high price."
Boosting America's image in the world turns out to be no substitute for compassion and courage. Obama has shown those on rare occasions, but not often enough to characterize his term. Interestingly, they are what folks may remember after the signboards and fast-food tie-ins are gone.