Welcome home banners for Barack Obama adorned the marbled hall of Jakarta's Bellagio Mall, where officials and distant family of the US president held a party this week to celebrate his upcoming visit to Indonesia.
Their hopes faded when President Obama delayed his visit until June so he can focus on a health care bill currently hung up in Congress.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that America’s international alliances are critical to its "security and economic progress" and dismissed concerns that the delay sent a negative message to Indonesia, where Obama spent part of his childhood living in the Jakarta neighborhood of Menteng.
Indonesian officials say they are not offended. “We are very much aware of the ongoing discussion in the Congress concerning the health care bill, and we are very sympathetic with the situation President Obama is facing,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said.
'A heart for Indonesia'
Originally timed to coincide with spring break for the first daughters, Malia and Sasha, the trip was billed as a bit of a homecoming for Obama. After it was initially delayed five days, however, the White House changed its tone, calling the visit purely diplomatic. Given that change, some here say the delay could be an improvement.
“Obama still has a heart for Indonesia, but he has to take care of his house first,” says Ron Muller, a founder of the Friends of Obama club that hosted Wednesday’s welcome back party at the Bellagio Mall. He says the delay will hopefully allow Obama and his family to spend more time in Indonesia in June to visit relatives and build relationships with business leaders and politicians.
The Bellagio’s "welcome home" party had assembled a motley crowd, including a former teacher, a childhood playmate, and an Obama impersonator.
“It’s a blessing for me to look like Mr. President,” says Ilham Anas, who has gained celebrity status for his uncanny resemblance to Obama. The 36-year-old had hoped to party with the man whose gestures he has studied for a year.
Many Indonesians say they are disappointed in the delays. “I don’t think it means Obama doesn’t love Indonesia, but the students were looking forward to his visit,” says Hasimah, the principal at State Elementary School Menteng 01, which Obama attended from 1970-71. She says a dance and vocal performance the children had prepared would be readied again for his June visit.
Since the White House announced Obama’s visit last month, local media have gobbled up anything related to the president. On Wednesday television crews turned their spotlights on Effendi, one of Obama’s elementary school teachers, who waved around class pictures and talked about a boy he said was “bigger and darker than the others” and excelled at history and geography.
Many here believe Obama’s time in Indonesia contributed to an outlook that is softer and more understanding of Asian culture. They were hoping those memories would lead to a speech along the same vein as the one he gave last year in Cairo, where he said would pay special attention to Islamic nations, such as Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Only 'a bump in the road'
The president was expected to highlight counter-terrorism measures at a democracy promotion conference March 23 and add his signature to a comprehensive partnership agreement aimed at more military-to-military exchange, investment, and climate change cooperation.
“The strategic value of Indonesia to the US and vice versa will not change for the foreseeable future,” says Evan Laksmana, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “This cancellation, I hope, is nothing more than a bump in the long road ahead for a US-Indonesia partnership.”
That bump has merely led to schedule changes thus far, and doesn’t seem to too deeply disappoint most Indonesians. Nonggol Darapati, an Obama friend whose birthday falls on March 23, says she was planning to devote her yearly party to the president’s arrival.
“Who needs a cake when you’ve got Obama?” she said. But for now it seems cake will have to suffice.