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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Obama a surprise guest among allies at Biden’s state dinner for Kenya

President Joe Biden toasts Kenyan President William Ruto during a state dinner at the White House on Thursday in Washington, D.C.  (Win McNamee)
By Katie Rogers and Zach Montague New York Times

WASHINGTON – Yes, Barack Obama was there.

State dinners are best known as bear hugs for overseas allies, and Thursday’s honoree was Kenya. But the sixth state dinner of President Joe Biden’s term was designed to clutch domestic allies – not the least of them Obama, whose father was Kenyan – even tighter as the president makes the long slog toward November.

The 500-person event, held on the South Lawn of the White House on a humid May evening, was attended by dozens of influential Kenyans, of course. The list included President William Ruto of Kenya and his wife, Rachel, along with three of his daughters. It also included some of the country’s wealthiest figures, like James Mwangi, the CEO of the global banking conglomerate Equity Group Holdings Limited.

“We share a strong respect for the history that connects us together,” Biden said to his guests during a toast. He quoted from a speech given by President Jimmy Carter, who honored Kenya with a state dinner in 1980: “Neighbors do not share a border but share beliefs.”

But the evening, along with the guest list, was just as notable for what it said about Biden’s current political obstacles. Aside from Obama – the former president was not on the initial guest list published by the White House, and he departed before Biden’s speech – the list name-checked the people Biden will want to bring closer into the fold in the months ahead. The lineup included elected officials in several battleground states, influential Black political operatives, and powerful philanthropists, like Melinda French Gates.

Choosing their guests, the president and Jill Biden, the first lady, mixed supporters of the president’s reelection effort with several Biden family members – granddaughters and Biden’s son Hunter, who is scheduled to stand trial on gun charges next month. (Hunter Biden’s wife, Melissa Cohen Biden, walked the red carpet alone.)

There were few Hollywood types, though one notable attendee was actor Sean Penn. Penn was photographed by the gossip website TMZ as he spent time with Hunter Biden, who has been working on a documentary about his life, in California this month.

And then there was a lengthy list of members of the administration, including Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose Department of Justice charged the younger Biden with tax fraud in December. The Bidens designed a similarly fraught guest list almost a year ago, when Hunter Biden attended the state dinner in honor of India.

In other ways, the evening seemed designed to give several overworked Biden officials the night off – if you can call it that. Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, and Elizabeth Alexander, the first lady’s communications director, were invited, as was Carlos Elizondo, the White House social secretary, who has helped plan the past six state dinners.

Some attendees, like veteran political strategist Donna Brazile, tried to dodge talk of the 2024 election, but reality had a way of creeping into the gauzy event.

LeVar Burton, a former “Star Trek” officer on the USS Enterprise and a onetime host of the PBS literacy-building program “Reading Rainbow,” was asked by reporters to use a single word to describe the political climate.

“Just one? Can I swear?” asked Burton. “I will say it is fraught, indeed. With possibility. That’s three words.”

All three of those words could apply to Biden’s campaign. According to recent polls, he is trailing his competitor, former President Donald Trump, in several battleground states, and several representatives from those states were in attendance: The mayors of Charlotte, North Carolina, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Augusta and Atlanta all traveled to Washington to dine on chilled heirloom tomato soup and fruitwood-smoked beef short ribs within a few tables of the president.

Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State, arrived for their second state dinner this spring – the last one, for Japan, was held just over a month ago. Biden is relying on Clinton and Obama for their support, advice and fundraising abilities: An event the three hosted in New York in March raised $25 million.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., made the cut, as did Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a longtime friend and confidant of the president’s.

(Coons was recently dining on cooked muskrat in Delaware, at a function intended to shore up relations back home. On his plate Thursday, though, was butter-poached lobster and baby kale with sweet corn purée, with a white chocolate basket for dessert.)

The lone Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, is an ally of Speaker Mike Johnson, and was thought to be instrumental in urging Johnson to support the last round of military funding for Ukraine.

Even Brad Paisley, the night’s musical entertainment, enjoys a friend-of status. He and his wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, have headlined several events with the first lady since Biden was elected. Paisley, who was the musical guest at a White House dinner for governors in February 2023, also performed with the Howard Gospel Choir.

“I can’t wait to see what kind of audience this is,” Paisley said brightly to reporters, telling them that he was planning to start the festivities with his song “American Saturday Night” – such a hopeful tune for a group that doesn’t really observe weekends.

At several points, attendees briefly offered their thoughts about investment in African economies and programs. Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, said that he supported the development of sports programs in Africa, and said that the White House should rebuild its basketball court. (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sped by reporters.)

Author Barbara Kingsolver, who has drawn inspiration from the continent in several of her novels, was circumspect when asked what it was about Africa that had so influenced her work.

“Everything,” the Pulitzer Prize winner said before slipping inside.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.