Why Obama and George W. Bush are both in the same African city

With his predecessor's Africa legacy already hanging over him, Obama runs into W. thousand of miles from home

President Obama and the first lady depart South Africa for Tanzania on July 1.
(Image credit: AP Photo)

President Obama is close to wrapping up his first major presidential visit to Africa. But in some ways, his trip has been overshadowed from Day 1.

One shadow is cast by China. Obama's stated goal is to boost U.S. trade with and private investment in Africa, but China is way ahead of America on this. Thanks in part to numerous visits from Chinese President Xi Jinping and his predecessors, bilateral trade with the continent has jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $200 billion in 2012, according to Chinese figures.

Another big shadow: The South African leg of Obama's visit had to compete with the heaps of attention being paid to revered former leader Nelson Mandela, who is reportedly near death.

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But perhaps the most surprising specter hovering over the president's Africa trip is that of George W. Bush.

Bush is "revered in Africa," says Susan Crabtree at The Washington Examiner. "Even as he alienated other international allies with his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush is beloved across the continent for his legacy of combating AIDS in the region." Bush's President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, committed $15 billion to fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa, and is credited with saving up to 2 million lives and giving hope to a generation of Africans.

Obama said on Friday that Bush "deserves enormous credit" for PEPFAR, but while the president has continued the program — and started his own $3.5 billion anti-hunger program, Feed the Future — he has cut funding for AIDS relief in Africa. Obama explains this two ways: He can't get the same level of funding out of the GOP-controlled House, and he's encouraging Africa to take charge of its public health programs. "Everything we do is designed to make sure that Africa is not viewed as dependent, as a charity case, but is instead viewed as a partner," Obama said en route to South Africa.

On the ground in Africa, though, that translates into less foreign aid. And while Bush has largely dropped out of sight in the U.S., he has continued to visit Africa. He visited Zambia twice in the past two years, and embarked on his third trip last week. Bush and his wife are helping to fix up a clinic, as part of their Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon anti-cancer initiative, with the George W. Bush Institute.

This is where things get interesting. George and Laura Bush are headed to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Monday — as are Barack and Michelle Obama. "Officials at the George W. Bush Institute, part of the recently opened presidential center at [Southern Methodist University], and the White House said the overlapping presidential itineraries are purely coincidental," says Tom Benning at The Dallas Morning News.

Regardless, both camps are stuck with the potentially awkward reality that Obama and Bush are going to be in the same city at the same time, thousands of miles from the United States. White House officials say the two men will meet to lay a ceremonial wreath outside the U.S. embassy. Their wives are going to connect, too: Laura Bush is hosting an African First Ladies Summit, and Michelle Obama is attending.

There's no downside for Bush. Obama is trying to create his own African legacy — oddly, based on trade versus Bush's aid-based endowment — but he doesn't have many choices. In theory, he could take a page from Casablanca and mutter, like Humphrey Bogart's Rick, that "of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world," Bush had to stumble into his. (Watch below) But wisely, the unofficial, apparently unplanned summit of U.S. presidents in Tanzania is being touted as a sign of bipartisan dedication to Africa.

The fact that two presidents happen to be in the same African city at the same time is a "powerful symbol," says deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, and it "sends a very positive message that both political parties in the United States share a commitment to this continent."

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