President Barack Obama will not be attending The 19th Bi-Annual International AIDS Conference, which will be held in Washington, D.C., this week with an audience expected to include iconic AIDS activists such as Sir Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Gates, and more than 25,000 participants, including 3,000 members of the media, who come from nearly 200 countries. The return of the conference to the United States, after a hiatus of 22 years, is a really big deal.
While Obama will host some attendees at the White House, his no-show yesterday, substituted by a video message, was for reasons that remain unclear and cause for speculation. In fact, Obama’s decision has enraged some, is embarrassing to others, considered strategically questionable, disappointing or, at the very least, a missed opportunity in two of the hardest hit communities with HIV/AIDS: the black African and the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT). That he chose to fly to Colorado to be with the families of the victims of the Colorado movie theater massacre is commendable; the decision to not be in town when the conference convened seems odd.
In President Obama’s place will be some of his big guns, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former president Bill Clinton Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius; U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Eric Goosby; Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy Grant Colfax; and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
Former President George W. Bush will either address the group or send a video, and First Lady Laura Bush will speak. Bush was the first president to support the HIV/AIDS epidemic with mega-dollars from Congress. Both continue to remain involved beyond his presidency.
Started in 1985 by Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the First International AIDS conference (IAC) was held in Atlanta, Georgia. Two years later, when it became clear that the Reagan era was to be one of silence, denial, and indifference, a frightened President Reagan and Congress created the ban to prevent HIV and AIDS infected persons from entering this country. When the ban was lifted by the Obama administration in January, 2010, it paved the way for the International AIDS Society (IAS), the coordinators of the event, to select the United States to be the conference’s host.
This conference is the most attended and largest conference on any health issue and, specifically, on HIV and AIDS, in the world. Speakers and participants will include advocates, scientists, medical care providers, business leaders, policymakers and those living with HIV/AIDS. Their weighty agenda is to discuss and provide status reports and updates in terms of where we are in the fight against AIDS, what we have learned, and how do we move forward,
All the more reason for the president to make an appearance. The event is only blocks away from the White House; you would think that his schedule would allow him to pop in and greet an international audience that, probably, is supportive of his reelection. Maybe he will surprise us; after all, the conference is on all week.
Everyone is trying to second-guess him. Is this news? Does it signal a shift in strategy towards winning the presidency? Is this much ado about nothing?