DAKAR, Senegal - President Barack Obama opened a weeklong trip to Africa on Wednesday, a three-country visit aimed at overcoming disappointment on the continent over the first black U.S. president's lack of personal engagement during his first term.
However, the highly anticipated trip threatens to be overshadowed by the deteriorating health of beloved former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Air Force One touched down in the Senegalese capital of Dakar on Wednesday evening. The president, who is traveling with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, is also scheduled to visit South Africa and Tanzania.
The president is expected to be greeted warmly during his trip, despite the underlying sense of disappointment. American flags dotted the roadways as Obama's motorcade sped through this coastal city, and signs welcoming Obama and bearing his picture hung on homes and businesses.
Obama's father was born in Kenya and several of his relatives still live there. But despite his family ties to the continent, Obama spent just one day in Africa during his first four years in office and has focused instead on strengthening U.S. ties with Asia and Latin America.
"Africans were very excited when President Obama was elected and they expected deeper engagement than in the past, both in regard to policy and also in terms of actual visits to the continent, given the president's African heritage," said Mwangi Kimenyi, an Africa analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "Africans have been gradually disappointed, especially when they look at the focus on Africa by previous presidents, in particular President Clinton and President George W. Bush, who did quite a bit there."
Few major policy announcements are expected during Obama's trip. Instead, the president will focus on promoting democratic institutions, boosting opportunities for Africa's vast youth population and promoting the continent as a growing market for U.S. businesses.
The White House defended the purpose of the trip despite its low policy expectations.
"Presidential trips to regions of the world like Africa bring enormous benefits in terms of our relationship with the countries visited and the countries in the region," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One. "The trip itself will not be the end point of our engagement, but will enhance it, deepen it and further it."