Barack is back! Obama stops by Biden’s lavish state dinner for Kenyan president

Celebrities including LeVar Burton, Sean Penn and Michaela Coel attended the 500-person event

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
,Amelia Neath
Thursday 23 May 2024 21:30 BST
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'To Kenya': Biden raises toast to Kenyan president during state dinner

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Barack Obama was the surprise guest at a lavish, 500-person White House dinner on Thursday evening as President Joe Biden rolled out the red carpet for Kenyan leader William Ruto, the first state visit by an African leader in nearly 20 years.

The dinner was the largest of the Biden presidency so far with a guest list including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Vice President Kamala Harris, actors LeVar Burton, Michaela Coel and Sean Penn, and multiple members of the Biden family.

Entertainment was provided by country singer Brad Paisley who performed hits like ‘American Saturday Night’, and the gospel choir of Howard University.

The event was held in a “transparent pavilion” on the White House’s South Lawn, and guests dined on a menu that celebrated summer, according to the White House chef.

Former president Obama made a brief appearance at the event, shaking hands and chatting with guests before slipping out the side door as President Biden made his speech.

Former president Barack Obama briefly attended the official State Dinner in honour of Kenya’s President William Ruto at the White House
Former president Barack Obama briefly attended the official State Dinner in honour of Kenya’s President William Ruto at the White House (REUTERS)

Mr Biden welcomed the “many members of the African diaspora” at the dinner and name-checked Mr Obama, who had “just left”.

Mr Obama, whose father was born in Kenya and visited the country as president in 2015, met with Mr Ruto earlier that day in Washington, exchanging views on democracy, climate, peace and security challenges in Africa, according to the Kenyan leader’s office.

The dinner turned out to be a family affair for the Bidens. Hunter and his wife Melissa attended the dinner, although she walked the red carpet alone. The president’s grandchildren were also in attendance, including Naomi Biden and her husband Peter Neal, Finnegan Biden and Beau Biden’s daughter, Natalie Biden, who told reporters it was her first time attending a state dinner.

Singer Brad Paisley performs during the State Dinner at the White House on Thursday
Singer Brad Paisley performs during the State Dinner at the White House on Thursday (REUTERS)

Those who snagged a place at Mr Biden’s table were Minority House Leader Hakeem Jeffries, former president Bill Clinton and former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Other notable guests included Singer-songwriter Don McLean, author Barbara Kingsolver, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NBA head, Adam Silver.

Alongside other actors in attendance, other familiar Hollywood faces appeared at the event, such as Wilmer Valderrama and Michaela Coel, who said it was “my first time in Washington — the closest I’ve had to this is ‘Hamilton,’ the musical.”

President Joe Biden first lady Jill Biden, Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife Rachel Ruto wave together during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on May 23, 2024 in Washington, DC
President Joe Biden first lady Jill Biden, Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife Rachel Ruto wave together during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on May 23, 2024 in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a longstanding voice in the Democratic world and former presidential candidate told reporters as he was arriving that “democracy is going to win in ’24” when asked about Mr Biden’s chances against Donald Trump.

He also added that Africa has not been suitably recognised on the global stage, saying that Thursday’s dinner was, therefore, especially important.

It is the first state visit by a leader from the African continent since president of Ghana, John Kufour, was hosted by former president George W Bush in 2008.

Melinda French Gates and Rory Gates
Melinda French Gates and Rory Gates (Getty Images)

According to White House officials, Mr Biden’s aim for hosting Mr Ruto was to shore up bilateral ties with Nairobi, as Kenya increasingly becomes a major player both in Africa and globally.

The evening began with a cocktail reception for guests on the White House terrace, before dining in the magnificent pavilion, featuring, more than 1,000 candles, a suspended centerpiece with 15,000 layered reflective metallic strips meant to amplify the candlelight, and views of the Washington Monument.

The transparent pavilion on the South Lawn decked with illuminating spectacles
The transparent pavilion on the South Lawn decked with illuminating spectacles (AP)

The dinner’s first course consisted of chilled green tomato soup, with marinated onions and cucumber marinated in white balsamic vinegar, while lobster poached in butter, along with marinated and lightly smoked short ribs will be served as an entree.

For dessert, the White House executive pastry chef made a homemade white chocolate basket filled with a nectarine paste, a banana ganache, fresh raspberries, and peaches.

Throughout the evening, the guests enjoyed performances from Paisley and the gospel choir, which First Lady Jill Biden told reporters were both selected to honour Mr and Ms Rufo’s “love of gospel and country music”. Both genres can trace their roots to African musical traditions brought to the US by enslaved people.

Actor LeVar Burton and Stephanie Cozart Burton
Actor LeVar Burton and Stephanie Cozart Burton (REUTERS)

Powerful names also came to the state dinner, such as philanthropist Melinda Gates and NAACP Legal Defense Fund president Janai Nelson.

Among the list of notable politicians who attended the event were Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and even representative Michael McCaul of the GOP party.

Melissa Cohen Biden walks the red carpet without her husband, Hunter Biden
Melissa Cohen Biden walks the red carpet without her husband, Hunter Biden (REUTERS)

Before the state dinner even began, President Ruto arrived on Thursday morning an event featuring the US Marine Band and a review of military personnel.

Mr Biden greeted Mr Ruto on the South Lawn, telling the Kenyan leader: “The world is safer when Kenya and the United States work together”.

First Lady Jill Biden speaks before county music performer Brad Paisley sings during the State Dinner
First Lady Jill Biden speaks before county music performer Brad Paisley sings during the State Dinner (AP)

“Today, I am as optimistic and hopeful as I was those years ago, when Kenyan patriots raised that new flag high in that midnight sky,” Mr Biden said.

“Because Kenya and the United States stand together, committed to each other, committed to our people, and committed to building a better world”.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden with Kenyan President William Ruto, his wife Rachel Ruto and their children
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden with Kenyan President William Ruto, his wife Rachel Ruto and their children (Getty Images)

Mr Biden praised Mr Ruto for what he described as “bold leadership,” and acknowledged the 60-year history of relations between the US and Kenya, dating back to the African republic’s independence from the former British Empire.

In the Oval Office, he said the US-Kenya partnership was not only “delivering for our nations” but “delivering for the world.”

“It’s remarkable. This visit is not just about our histories. It’s about the future,” Mr Biden continued, adding later that there was “virtually no challenge that Kenya and the United States can’t meet together”.

Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton (AP)

The president notified Congress on Thursday that he is designating Kenya as a major non-Nato US ally, making it the first sub-Saharan nation to receive that designation. Kenya joins a list of non-Nato US allies which includes Israel, Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand, Colombia and Pakistan.

Mr Biden and Mr Ruto also announced the “Nairobi-Washington Vision”, a call for creditor nations to make it easier for developing nations with high debt burdens to receive assistance.

Sean Penn and Ann Lee
Sean Penn and Ann Lee (REUTERS)

The pact will also push international financial institutions to coordinate debt relief and support through multilateral banks and institutions providing better financing terms.

Additionally, the White House rolled out $250m in grants for the World Bank’s International Development Association to use for crisis assistance to poor countries.

“Together the United States and Kenya are working together on the challenges that matter most to our peoples lives — health, security, economic security, cybersecurity and climate security,” Mr Biden said.

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