The excitement has been building over the last few weeks. Children from the two schools he attended in Jakarta have been learning American songs and traditional dances in the hope they will get to perform for him. Newspaper opinion pages and social networking websites have been buzzing with debate about the pros and cons of his visit. Hard-line Islamists have been stocking up on shoes to throw at pictures of him, aping protests against George W Bush in Iraq. Obama’s return to this country of 240 million people, 86 per cent of whom are Muslim, has been eagerly awaited ever since Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono invited him back last year.
Many Indonesians are proud of the fact that the most powerful man in the world spent some of his formative years in their country and has spoken fondly of his time in Jakarta. In internet forums and on cult T-shirts, Obama has been dubbed “Anak Menteng” or the “Menteng Kid”, after the well-heeled Jakarta suburb where he lived with his American mother and his Indonesian stepfather from 1967 to 1971.
“He’s the biggest foreign visitor we’ve had for years,” added Andini Effendi, an anchor for Metro TV, Indonesia’s first 24-hour rolling news channel. “When George W Bush was here in 2006, it was hectic but not in a good way. There were huge anti-Bush demonstrations and that was what we focused on.”
The big hope is that Indonesia can leverage on the Obama connection to repair relations with the US, which suffered from a combination of neglect and mutual suspicion under George W Bush.
“From the Indonesian side, the visit is more symbolic than anything else,” says Evan Laksmana, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Indonesian think tank. “There’s unlikely to be any concrete initiatives in terms of economics, defence or trade but the focus will be on improving cooperation in areas such as investment, education and counter-terrorism.”
For the US, it’s a chance to regain traction in Southeast Asia, especially with Chinese influence in the region growing strongly.
In Indonesia, as in America, much of the euphoria that greeted Obama’s election has died down as “the audacity of hope” has faded into the cold reality of politics.
A bronze statue of the US president as a boy was recently removed from a park in Obama’s former neighbourhood after opposition to the veneration of a foreign figure in a public space.
Radical Islamists, who have already held boisterous anti-Obama demonstrations across the archipelago, have vowed to protest in their thousands against a man they claim is an “enemy of Islam” for continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and failing to hold Israel to account.
The problem is that with the US Secret Service ultra-cautious as ever and security concerns heightened by the Indonesian police’s recent discovery of a terrorist training camp in Aceh, it seems unlikely that Obama will do much public meeting and greeting.
A proposed trip to the ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur has been cancelled because of security fears and Obama’s exact itinerary will not be confirmed until the last minute.
Already last week it was announced that the US president’s trip to Indonesia would be delayed by three days to 21 March so that Obama can work a little longer to get healthcare reforms through Congress. As a result, his wife Michelle and their two daughters will no longer be joining him on the trip (the girls will be back at school).
With expectations so high here, the danger is that people may be left feeling disappointed by what looks like it’s becoming just another flying visit from a US president.