Opinion: A White House state dinner that could help Biden’s election chances

Editor’s Note: Joyce M. Davis, outreach and opinion editor for PennLive and The Patriot-News, is the president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

This week’s US-Kenya summit was about many things. It was about strengthening a burgeoning trade relationship in multiple areas, including technology, energy and artificial intelligence. It also afforded the opportunity to highlight a new role for Nairobi as a military partner for Washington.

Joyce M. Davis - Courtesy Dan Gleiter
Joyce M. Davis - Courtesy Dan Gleiter

But high on the list — hardly a surprise in a presidential election year — is that the visit also had much to do with US politics.

President William Ruto and his wife, first lady Rachel Ruto, were treated with all the pomp and circumstance befitting their stature on the global stage, as cameras rolled in the United States and the images were beamed around the world. And as President Joe Biden seeks to strengthen ties with Black voters to shore up his re-election bid, it did not hurt one bit to welcome the African leader and his wife for an official state visit to the White House.

A glittering banquet late Thursday was lent a bit of extra shine by the presence of former President Barack Obama — years out of office but still an immensely popular figure with Black voters — whose father was Kenyan.

Africa matters to many Black Americans, a continent most will never have visited, but to which they have ancestral and emotional ties. Scenes of Biden and Ruto shaking hands and smiling with their wives at their sides are bound to resonate with Black voters, a base Biden desperately needs to turn out in force to support him at the ballot box in November.

There were formal greetings with national anthems and military salutes, as well as a press conference at the White House. The elegant state dinner befitting a top global ally was the icing on the cake. All of that can only help Biden’s standing with people in the east African country and Africa as a whole, as well as bolstering his ratings with Black Americans. Ruto is only the sixth head of state to enjoy a state visit with Biden, and the high-profile visit sent a strong message about Kenya’s importance to the United States at home and abroad.

But there is even more at stake for American interests than photo-ops to boost popularity polls. America needs Kenya, and vice versa. First, the US-Kenya alliance is more than 60 years old. It has stood the test of time, including the violent election of 2007 when an estimated 1,200 Kenyans died.

At that time, Ruto and the United States were on opposite sides. The International Criminal Court charged Ruto with murder, forced deportation and persecution. The United States supported the investigation, standing with those charging Ruto.

The case against the future Kenyan leader — and allegations against the sitting President Uhuru Kenyatta — collapsed after a 13-year investigation. Both men, who at the time were political adversaries, settled their differences, and Ruto ran as Kenyatta’s deputy in the 2013 presidential elections.

Kenyans elected Ruto as president in 2022. Today, at a time of turmoil and instability in various parts of the African continent, Kenya is an oasis of relative calm and stability. In fact, Ruto has aptly described Kenya as the “anchor” of East and Central Africa.

Kenya is now one of America’s strongest and most dependable allies on the African continent. And America needs stable African allies as China and Russia are both on the hunt for the continent’s vital minerals and other natural resources.

Both nations have deepening ties with Africa. China has been funding major infrastructure projects across the continent, while Russia is also making fresh inroads by capitalizing on growing anti-Western sentiment in some parts of the continent to profit from sales of weapons and natural resources.

Against that backdrop, Ruto’s state visit is a welcome event for both Nairobi and Washington. To give US relations with Africa the kind of boost that is really needed, however, Biden should have visited the continent, as he promised to do long ago. And he should have fulfilled his promise to prioritize relations with Africa far sooner than the final year of his first term as president.

It would have gone a long way to slowing the progress America’s adversaries are making politically and economically. It is one thing to send first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — both of whom traveled to Africa last year — to wave the flag for America. But it is another matter entirely for an American president to set foot onto African soil in person.

Strong relations with Kenya benefit American business and security interests. Kenya not only has a young, educated population with disposable income to purchase American products, but also a leader who wants to be a player on the world stage. Ruto has agreed to send Kenyan troops into Haiti to deal with the chaos gangs have wrought to the nation so close to American shores. In doing so, he is netting desperately needed international cash to help prop up Kenya’s economy and fill government coffers with hard currency.

And Ruto’s visit to the United States will have another positive impact. It will boost economic ties with the United States, benefitting both American and Kenyan businesses. Keep in mind Kenya has what is called the “Silicon Savannah” with highly trained engineers and a tech-savvy workforce. Over 90% of its energy comes from renewable sources, and the United States is Kenya’s largest export market.

None of this means Kenya is severing political or economic ties with Russia or China. It makes sense for Kenya to keep friendly relations with both countries, but American businesses should not fear their economic competition. America has so much more to offer.

Ruto’s entourage met with leaders of Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, which reportedly is interested in acquiring a stake in Kenya’s flagship carrier Kenya Airways. And even more economic news is likely to result in the days and weeks following the state visit.

The truth is, both Biden and Ruto will benefit from this week’s meetings in Washington. Ruto departs the United States with the new status of “major non-NATO ally” strengthening his administration and providing valuable protection for his country. He is also receiving assurance that the vital African Growth and Opportunity Act, providing African states with duty-free status in the United States, will be extended.

Unfortunately, the one thing that is likely most pressing on Ruto’s mind is something the United States is unable to provide — an antidote to the devastating effects of climate change on the African continent.

In just the past few weeks, more than 250 people have died in the worst flooding in Kenya in more than a decade and signs are that it will only get worse. As much as Biden might like to stop the rains and reverse global warming, the power to do so is not within any president’s purview. However, he can help America to become a more visible presence on African matters.

Ruto’s visit provided an opportunity for Biden to personally and publicly reconnect to Africa, reset with African American voters — and vow to do better. Biden has promised to visit the continent, which he now says he’ll do next year. He’ll have the opportunity to do so if US voters — including Black Americans — return him to office.

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