For French academic Jean-Éric Branaa, the era set to begin on 20 January in Washington will be “a third Obama term”. On the cusp of taking his oath of office, the white seventy-something president-elect is a full-fledged product of 1970s US politics, but his career will continue to bear the symbolic imprint of the time he spent serving alongside a leader whose father once worked as an economist in Kenya’s Ministry of Finance.
Given that Joe Biden would be 81 years old if he were to run for re-election, his new White House stint is supposed to last just one term. There’s also a sense that his presidency will be a continuation of the Obama years, as quite a few mainstays from the previous Democrat administration will be making a comeback. And diversity is in vogue again.
The government team that has been taking shape in recent weeks is even said to be the most diverse in US history. Biden’s leading light and second-in-command, Kamala Harris, is the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and was raised by her Hindu single mother, an ardent civil rights activist. What’s more, Harris will be the first woman to serve as vice president, a post that has taken on greater significance because of Biden’s advanced age: he’ll become an octogenarian during his presidency.
The vice president’s ties to the African-American community may be looser than the norm, but the Biden administration will include a cohort of authentically African advisers. Two Nigerian-Americans stand out from the pack.
Tapped in November to serve as US deputy Treasury secretary, Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo was born in Nigeria just under 40 years ago and grew up in southern California. After serving in such roles as deputy director of the National Economic Council (NEC) and assistant secretary for international markets and development at the US Department of the Treasury, Adeyemo became president of the Obama Foundation.
His background is consistent with the former Democratic president’s, just as his focus on black identity, as he worked as director of African-American outreach for the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry, another Obama-era politician who is back from the dead.
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More recently, Biden appointed Osaremen Okolo, a first-generation American born to Nigerian immigrants, as health policy adviser on his COVID-19 response team. Influenced by her heritage – she graduated with a degree in medicine and African-American studies and says she “loves Nigerian food” – Okolo is also a testament to the team’s generational diversity. The 26-year-old is 52 years younger than the president she’ll be serving under and was the tender age of 14 when Barack Obama became president for the first time.
What remains to be seen is whether or not this injection of African talent will give fresh impetus to US-African relations and serve more than a symbolic purpose – as diversity can sometimes be for show – that’s not just about race-based statistics.
But Biden would be hard-pressed to perform more poorly than Donald Trump, who in the best of times ignored Africa and, in his worst moments, described the continent as rife with “shithole countries”, while banning many would-be African immigrants from US soil. That said, though Obama could claim Kenyan heritage, after eight years in office his Africa policy was hardly memorable.
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