DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – Flying over East Africa on Monday, a White House official was in the midst of a briefing on a new initiative to combat rhinoceros poaching and big-game trafficking when a reporter got stuck on a detail.
“Ten billion or 10 million?” the reporter asked.
“Ten million, yes, with an ‘m,’ ” said Grant Harris, the National Security Council’s senior director for African affairs, to surprised faces. “Yes, million – $10 million.”
It’s not every day this White House, which proposed more than $3.7 trillion in spending in its 2014 budget, highlights a new program that costs less than the government spends in two minutes. But the relatively small poaching initiative reflects a persistent reality that has trailed this president at each stop of his first African tour: Times are tight.
Some past presidents, including Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, have punctuated their trips here with announcements of new aid or, at least, promises to fight Congress to boost foreign assistance. But faced with lawmakers intent on belt-tightening, Obama has come with a different approach, one that seeks to create more partnerships and to rely more heavily on private investment.
“Given budget constraints, for us to try to get the kind of money President Bush was able to get out of a Republican House for massively scaled new foreign aid programs is very difficult,” Obama told reporters this week, answering a question about his legacy on the continent.
Foreign aid, even though it makes up about 1 percent of federal spending, is unpopular with Americans, most of whom overestimate how much the U.S. provides and tell pollsters they want the assistance cut.
In Senegal, the White House celebrated the progress of its initiative to improve food production, issuing a report finding that 7 million people had been reached by efforts to increase crop yields and modernize agricultural practices. But there was no announcement of new money.
In South Africa, the White House touted existing programs to fight malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, but promised no additional financial commitment.
Obama has bristled at comparisons to Bush, whom he will see in Tanzania today at a ceremony honoring those killed in the 1998 bombing of the embassy here. Bush and his wife, Laura, are in the country for a summit of African first ladies, which first lady Michelle Obama will also attend.