Obama’s father towers over trip to Kenya

Obama’s father towers over trip to Kenya
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President Obama’s late father will tower over his trip to Kenya.

Obama’s historic visit is meant to deepen U.S. security and trade ties with East Africa, but the president’s family connections are what is really building anticipation.

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It’s the first time Obama will visit his father’s home country since he was elected president, and it will bring into sharp focus his relationship with Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGeorge W. Bush honors father at benefit for hurricane victims Dem senator: ‘I miss every one of’ our last 5 presidents All five living former presidents appear at hurricane relief benefit concert MORE, Sr.  — a complicated man who Obama barely knew.

Obama’s father left his mother when the president was only two, and he has said that growing up without a father has driven him to be a better one himself. 

“I know what it means to have an absent father,” Obama said during a 2008 Father’s Day speech in his hometown of Chicago. “I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle — that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my girls.”

Barack Obama, Sr., was an economist in Kenya, but he struggled with personal and professional problems that drove him to alcoholism. He died in 1982, at the age of 46, in a car crash.

While Barack Obama, Sr., was absent from the president’s life, he remained a presence.

In Obama’s bestselling memoir Dreams From My Father, the president writes of his adulation of his father.

“It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcom, Dubois and Mandela,” Obama wrote.

During a visit with his sister Auma, Obama is told about how his father talked of Barack, Jr., repeatedly. Auma also relates that his father was frequently disappointed with his own life and that she felt she barely knew him.

The emotional climax of the book is a scene in which the future president sits weeping between the graves of his father and grandfather. "When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me," he writes. "I felt the circle finally close."

Still, the overall exploration of his father's life leaves the president questioning whether he has been “wrestling with nothing more than a ghost.”

Obama’s first trip to Kenya in 1987 was about learning more about his father and his father’s African family. It was about trying to “finally fill that emptiness” left by his father.

“Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father's expectations or make up for his father's mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else,” Obama wrote in his second book, The Audacity of Hope.

Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to aid young men and boys of color, and he recently announced the effort would continue after he leaves office. 

Kenyans are treating Obama’s trip as a homecoming, and excitement has reached a fever pitch.

T-shirts plastered with Obama’s face and the slogan “welcome home” are for sale on street corners. His father’s gravesite received a makeover in anticipation of a presidential visit, which won’t come. 

Kenyans have been disappointed that the president has yet to visit their country despite his other trips to the continent.

The last time Obama was in Kenya was in 2006, when he was a senator from Illinois.

During that trip he visited his family’s ancestral village of Kogelo, something he won’t repeat on the new trip.

Security and time constraints that come with being commander in chief will keep him confined to the capital city of Nairobi, diminishing the personal feel of the visit. 

“I'll be honest with you, visiting Kenya as a private citizen is probably more meaningful to me than visiting as president, because I can actually get outside of a hotel room or a conference center,” Obama said at a press conference last week. 

Obama will have the chance to meet privately with members of his extended family in the country, however.  

And the president is scheduled to deliver a speech to the Kenyan people on Sunday that his top advisers have indicated will include touches on his family history.

“I think you’ll have an opportunity to hear from him, during the course of the trip, about his personal ties to Kenya,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters earlier this week.

Obama will focus on expanding economic opportunity for Africa’s critical youth population, Rice said.  

Auma Obama, the president’s half-sister, told CNN his father would be proud of his son’s accomplishments.

“He'd be extremely proud and say, ‘Well done,’” she said in an interview that aired Wednesday. “But then he'd add, ‘But obviously, you're an Obama.’ He was very proud.”