This week, Washington threw a 50th anniversary party. In 1960, 17 African nations swapped colonial flags for their own. In 2010—on the same day his father’s native Kenya freely voted for a new constitution—President Barack Obama held a town-hall meeting with Africa’s next generation in the East Room of the White House.
“The world needs your talents and your creativity,” Obama said, praising the 120 delegates, hand-picked by U.S. embassies in 46 countries, for having distinguished themselves—as journalists, activists, human-rights workers, and health counselors—before the age of 35. “Today, you represent a different vision, a vision of Africa on the move.”
“I was asking for me and for the millions of Somalis worried about our future,” she said. “His response was diplomatic, but cautious,” Somalian Najma Abdi said.
At the White House, the group could barely sit still. When Obama strode out to greet them, the only sound missing was the World Cup vuvuzela. For an hour, he took questions from youth from Mali, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Mozambique, and Somalia—and when time was up, every hand was still in the air. “You don’t have to snap,” he teased one eager participant. “I see you.”
Just an hour before the White House summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the same group in a flag-filled auditorium at the State Department. “I see Africa as a continent brimming with potential, a place that has so much just waiting to be grasped,” she said. “You are connecting and empowering people in ways that we couldn’t have dreamed of even five, let alone 10 years ago.”
In some ways, the two styles of engagement replicated old stereotypes from the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. Clinton gave a scripted speech; Obama held an intimate town-hall conversation. While Obama came prepared with lofty, stirring quotations—from John and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as Gandhi—Clinton rattled off impressive lists and figures. “Primary-school enrollment is up;” she noted. “Sixty percent of the population of Africa is under the age of 25.” And, chattering after both events, the delegates generally preferred the president. “[Clinton] was inspiring and very good but it didn’t have that special something,” said 32-year-old Ghanaian Anas Aremeyaw Anas. “Obama spoke from the African context, as an African.”
Yet Clinton’s performance was perhaps the more impressive. She pointed to specific, novel State Department initiatives—the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, an “ Apps4Africa” contest for software programmers in East Africa. “We have to change the way we pursue development,” she said.
Indeed, her engagement with African affairs has been deeper than that of the first literally African president. The summit was planned to fulfill Obama’s promise, made in Ghana last summer, to see Africa “as partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children.” But it was Clinton who took a longer—if less-covered—trip to seven African countries, just weeks after the president’s brief stopover. In addition to her 2009 stops in Kenya, South Africa, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, and Cape Verde, she has made two previous journeys as first lady—keeping in touch, for instance, with a group of women who went from homelessness to activism in South Africa. “She has a deep and longstanding experience with the people of Africa,” says Judith McHale, undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department. “[She] came back from her daughter’s wedding to be able to speak with them.”
Aminatou Daouda, a young woman from Mali, was impressed with Clinton. “I didn’t think that she was so tenacious—I thought of her as maybe a little older, less strong. But [she spoke] with such force and confidence, and had real confidence in us young people.”
But for some delegates, Obama was the only show in town. “I feel validated,” joked Patrick Henrico Sam, from Namibia. “Because I’ve been to the White House!”
Their enthusiasm was understandable—but Obama is still finding his feet on African issues. As a candidate, he pledged to end the conflict in Darfur; as president, he has been carefully neutral on prospects for peace. In keeping with strong financial commitments from former President George W. Bush, public-health advocates had hoped that he would honor his campaign promise of an additional $50 billion for AIDS prevention and treatment. And because his pledge to engage global entrepreneurs was made in his speech to Muslims in Cairo, his April summit on entrepreneurship focused on majority-Muslim countries—leaving out most African ones.
At the town-hall meeting, he faltered on a few key policy questions—on the failing states of Somalia and Zimbabwe, the issue of trade imbalances that depress African growth, and most notably, his commitment to AIDS treatment, criticized at the International AIDS conference in Vienna last month (Obama has established a smaller global health fund to fight HIV and other diseases). While his remarks on the rights of women were met with applause, these other statements were not. “I thought his response on AIDS were not the best,” said Abdul-Karim Sango of Congo-Brazzaville. “I would have asked why he hasn’t done more.”
Of course, Clinton, as Obama’s diplomat-in-chief, has spent more time engaging in the field on the pressing issues to the continent. And this is not to say that Africa isn’t critically important to the White House. Attacks from terrorist group al-Shabaab (“the Youth”) in the Horn of Africa—along with the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt from a young Nigerian trained in Yemen—placed African youth squarely within the administration’s fight against violent extremism globally. Najma Abdi, who questioned Obama on the violent conflict in her native Somalia—which produced last month’s deadly bombing in Kampala, Uganda—had a mixed reaction to his response. “I was asking for me and for the millions of Somalis worried about our future,” she said. “His response was diplomatic, but cautious.”
By contrast, Clinton’s State Department—the official host of the summit—has focused relentlessly on the connection between youth engagement and foreign policy. “The new problems—food security, climate change, public health—can’t be solved by diplomats anymore,” says one diplomat who works on youth issues for the State Department. And demographically, the people that mattered 15 years ago don’t look like the people that matter today.” In addition to the young men and women sporting fashions—and opinions—from across Africa, Obama and Clinton are also reminders of this fact.
“It was a big Africa week for us,” says McHale, who announced the conversation would continue at sites across the continent next year. “We all understand the importance of increasing the great trajectory that lots of African countries and businesses are on.” Both Obama and Clinton recognize the need to get Africa right. Though he was out of town and out of sight for most of the forum, the president did have the chance to put a stamp on the proceedings. Obama sent personal letters to each of the delegates—a token of friendship for the next 50 years. And the administration sent a planeful of the AGOA delegates to the American heartland to explore agricultural opportunities for Africa. The site? His mother’s native Kansas.
Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.