Now back at base after what was clearly a journalistic highlight, New African caught up with Teresa (pictured above) for more insights into her unforgettable experience.
What an experience, Teresa. As you reminisce on the days you spent with
POTUS, what would you say is the
Obama administration’s strategy on, and how they view, Africa?
The fact that President Obama took this trip so soon into his second term is a clear sign of intent. When he was challenged as to why he didn’t go to Kenya, he said that this was only his first trip to Africa and that he was going to be president for another three and a half years, suggesting that he would be back in Africa again.
And if you analyse the use of his words in recent weeks carefully, for example his remarks on the Trayvon Martin murder case [the man accused of killing the black teenager was acquitted in
July, igniting national outrage], you will note that President Obama is now speaking as a black man, that is, in a special candid way.
I think during his first term he was concerned not to be seen as someone who gave preference to black people or any other particular group. In this second term we are seeing a very different Obama. One who is making it very clear that he cares about black people and Africa. One other clear message from this trip was the focus on “Trade Not Aid”. Former President Bill Clinton created that policy, which President Obama has also adopted and reinforced. But I think he is taking “Trade not Aid” to a much deeper level. I also think that the electrification and power component which he announced in Tanzania is especially key. It was clear he wants to be seen as a president who really invested in one of the most significant areas in Africa. Something that will leave a lasting legacy with numerous dividends.
So you don’t think this announcement was more a way of counterbalancing the
Chinese threat and therefore of giving American companies like GE an opportunity to tap into cheaper sources of funding and provide, like the Chinese do, turnkey solutions to African governments?
There is no question that the US has a lot of catching up to do in respect to China and the issue of “can the US catch up with China – are you here to catch up with them” was raised at every press conference in the three countries he visited. I think that for Obama it’s much deeper, I think even if there was no Chinese investment in Africa he would still be here doing the same thing.
How would you describe the mood in the Obama camp during this trip?
We were travelling with a part of the White House Press Corps that goes with him on every overseas visit. This was our first trip but in talking to the other media who had a basis for comparison, they had noted the level of enthusiasm and energy that Obama and his team had for being in Africa. Not that he doesn’t have it on his other travels but I would guess that given his own heritage, it made it especially meaningful for him to be in Africa.
And what about the reception he received on African soil?
The reception Obama received was different in all the three countries he visited, but it was very warm. In South Africa they are used to receiving world leaders and every president of the United States goes to South Africa at some point during their tenure, so their enthusiasm was a bit muted, whereas in Dakar and in Dar es Salaam, the people were just so elated, so over the moon, as if they had won a lottery. But South Africans seemed more blasé, it was like “okay, here’s another US president”. They were very enthusiastic but there wasn’t the same kind of raw emotion that one saw in Senegal and Tanzania.
How did you find the Obama team? How do they operate? We’d guess they are very slick and highly effective?
Certainly. Valerie Jarrett is a very senior advisor [to Obama] and it was very clear that she plays a key role in informing his policies, and the people he surrounds himself with are just extremely clever. Jay Carney, who is the Press Secretary, and his team are very good at formulating their talking points and in ensuring that the media is well versed in what messages they want to get out.