WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Obama to US media: ‘Behave’
PRETORIA, South Africa — One element of President Barack Obama’s Africa policy is to encourage a free press, although he offered repeated reminders for U.S. reporters traveling with him on the continent to be on their best behavior.
“Americans, behave yourselves,” he needled Saturday as a contingent of U.S. and South African media was pulled from a quick photo op with President Jacob Zuma.
Obama spoke just before their joint news conference and may have been trying to suggest his press corps keep its questions tight.
On Saturday, both U.S. and South African reporters asked multi-part questions. Obama didn’t try to cut anyone off, but instead said the U.S. press corps must be happy the news conference was taking place in a wood-paneled chamber inside Pretoria’s grand Union Buildings.
“This is much more elegant than the White House press room,” Obama said, referring to the more cramped media quarters in the West Wing. “It’s a big improvement.”
He kept up the theme of a long-winded U.S. press at the start of his meeting with African Union Commission Chairwoman Dlamini-Zuma.
“I might take some questions, except earlier in the press conference you guys asked 4-in-1 questions,” a grinning Obama teased.
At his earlier stop in Senegal, Obama apologized to host President Macky Sall on behalf the American media.
“Sometimes my press — I notice yours just ask one question,” Obama said. “We try to fit in three or four or five questions in there.”
Minutes before that comment, Obama had praised democratic progress in Senegal, specifically mentioning “a strong press” as part of that movement. However, the first Senegalese reporter to be called on lobbed a softball, simply asking Sall to describe the visit and any new prospects it posed for Africa.
Questioned about foreign policy, Obama said more than the security issues that “take up a lot of my time,” he gets great satisfaction from listening to regular people talk about building their businesses.
A top priority is the war that’s drawing to a close in Afghanistan, with U.S. combat troops scheduled to return home by the end of next year.
Another is keeping the U.S. public safe. “I can’t deviate from that too much,” Obama said before also mentioning the need to focus on turmoil across the Middle East.
But “as much as the security issues in my foreign policy take up a lot of my time, I get a lot more pleasure from listening to a small farmer say that she went from one hectare to 16 hectares and has doubled her income,” Obama said. “That’s a lot more satisfying and that’s the future.”
The president apparently was still feeling good after the stop in Senegal. On Friday, he toured an exhibit showcasing the Senegalese agricultural sector with a focus on nutrition and fortified foods and chatted up several of the farmers who were there. The programs get help from Feed the Future, a public-private partnership begun by Obama that he touted in Senegal, including to reporters aboard Air Force One.
Obama’s trip has been quite a family affair.
He’s traveling with his wife, Michelle, their daughters Malia and Sasha, his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, and a niece, Leslie Robinson. Other relatives are with him in spirit.
He spoke Saturday about his late mother, anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham, and what he said she always used to tell him.
“You can measure how well a country does by how well it treats its women,” he said, quoting her.
On Thursday in Senegal, he quipped about how he had disappointed his maternal grandmother by becoming a politician, not a judge as she had hoped.
Obama was looking forward to visiting Robben Island for a special reason: the opportunity to take his daughters with him.
The tiny island off the coast of Cape Town is where many opponents of South Africa’s former system of white-minority rule were sent to prison.
Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars on the island. He was elected president a few years after his release.
Obama has visited the island previously, but called it a “great privilege and a great honor” to be able to bring Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, to teach them the history of the island and South Africa and how those lessons apply to their own lives growing up in America. The family was scheduled to ride the ferry over on Sunday.
The Obama girls could have visited Robben Island in 2011 when they accompanied their mother on her visit to South Africa, but the trip was scrubbed at the last minute due to rough seas.
Michelle Obama says she definitely would take more risks if she could go back and relive her teenage years.
She avoided getting too specific, though, saying simply that she’d try more things and travel more.
“I wouldn’t be as afraid as I was at that age to fail,” she said in Johannesburg during a Google+ Hangout chat involving scores of young people in Africa and several cities across the U.S., including New York City, Los Angeles and Houston. Singer-songwriters John Legend and Victoria Justice also participated.
After some of the students seated on stage with the first lady were asked to name their dream jobs, the question was then put to her.
Mrs. Obama didn’t identify her dream job, but said that back then she could never have envisioned participating in such a forum. She often has said she never saw herself becoming first lady, either, and used her example to try to inspire the audience. She told them to keep their dreams big and embrace failure.
“Don’t take yourself out of the game before you even start, because there’s no telling what life has in store for you,” Mrs. Obama said.