President Obama lands Monday in Ireland to begin a weeklong visit to Europe, trying to forge a common way forward with allies facing two wars, turmoil in the Middle East, and economies still struggling to recover from the 2008 collapse.
But before he gets down to the hard stuff, Obama will indulge in a dash of the Irish roots politics so beloved by American presidents who trace their ancestry to this island.
The White House and Irish officials planned the one-day stop in Ireland around a drop-in visit to Moneygall, a one-pub village about 48 miles from Dublin on the road to Limerick. In 1850, Fulmouth Kearney, the second son of a Moneygall shoemaker, joined the mass exodus fleeing the Irish famine in hopes of finding a better life in America.
Now, 160 years later, his great-great-great-grandson returns as president of the United States, to be welcomed by a tiny village that sees its own possibilities for prosperity in the connection.
It won’t be the first time. Whether greeting Irish American presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan or pouring a pint for Bill Clinton, the Irish have been eager to boast of their ties to the U.S. presidency. And presidents have been happy to go along with propping up an ethnic connection that could appeal to some voters. “There is special symbolism in going to the country of origin for many Americans of European immigrant descent,” says Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political science professor at Northwestern University.
Whether Obama’s Irish roots will help him politically at home is a stretch. Most discussion of Obama’s heritage has focused on the paternal side of his family and his Kenyan-born father. His Irish connection was not unearthed until 2007, when a Church of Ireland rector, Canon Stephen Neill, found church records that linked Kearney through five generations to Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother.
But the Irish government was also eager to have Moneygall on an itinerary that only added a formal bilateral meeting between leaders at the last minute, according to Irish media. Ireland is in the throes of a financial crisis brought on by a government bailout of widespread bank failures, and it has been forced to accept a bailout from its partners in the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
The question of how to avoid financial collapse in countries like Ireland, Greece and Portugal are foremost on the minds of European leaders, even as the bigger economies of Germany and France begin to show signs of stronger economic growth. That issue — and the protests against the austerity measures the financial crisis has triggered — will form a large part of the agenda for the annual meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized countries, which begins Wednesday in the French coastal city of Deauville.
Obama’s European tour, which includes stops in London, for a state dinner at Buckingham Palace, and Warsaw, will also focus on how to handle a shared unease with allies about military campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya. Leaders from Europe and Canada will want to hear more detail on the extent of the president’s planned drawdown of troops in Afghanistan this summer, and on the prospects for phasing out NATO responsibility for security to the Afghan government in the coming years.
There will also be questions about the way forward on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. Weeks of bombing have damaged Kadafi’s war machine but have not been enough to persuade him to give up power. The Europeans have pressed for a more forceful U.S. military role, of which the Pentagon wants little part. The White House has so far resisted getting much deeper into a campaign it joined for political reasons but regards as much more of a European fight.
Finally there will be questions about Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East, including his attempt to push the Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations. The administration is anxious to talk European leaders out of endorsing a planned Palestinian appeal to the United Nations for a vote to grant statehood, a move that would probably embarrass and isolate Israel. Part of the motive behind Obama’s tough words directed at Israel in recent days has been to show European and other world leaders that negotiations remain a viable alternative to a declaration of Palestinian statehood, a case the president is expected to make this week.
Meanwhile, White House advance teams have scouted several sites in Warsaw that could provide a symbolic setting for Obama to underscore his commitment to Israel’s security. Among the possibilities is the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto, the urban prison where Polish Jews were maltreated, some randomly killed and most eventually deported to be slain during World War II.
“By visiting Warsaw he is trying to signal to Americans of Jewish descent that he has not forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust, nor will he permit a tragic fate to befall modern-day Israel,” said Tom Whalen, a political science professor at Boston University.