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Obama Is a Surprise Guest Among Allies at Biden’s State Dinner for Kenya

Yes, Barack Obama was there.

State dinners are best known as bear hugs for overseas allies, and Thursday’s honoree was Kenya. But the sixth state dinner of President Biden’s term was designed to clutch domestic allies — not the least of them Mr. Obama, whose father was Kenyan — even tighter as the president makes the long slog toward November.

The 500-person event, held on the South Lawn of the White House on a humid May evening, was attended by dozens of influential Kenyans, of course. The list included President William Ruto of Kenya and his wife, Rachel, along with three of his daughters. It also included some of the country’s wealthiest figures, like James Mwangi, the chief executive of the global banking conglomerate Equity Group Holdings Limited.

“We share a strong respect for the history that connects us together,” Mr. Biden said to his guests during a toast. He quoted from a speech given by President Jimmy Carter, who honored Kenya with a state dinner in 1980: “Neighbors do not share a border but share beliefs.”

But the evening, along with the guest list, was just as notable for what it said about Mr. Biden’s current political obstacles. Aside from Mr. Obama — the former president was not on the initial guest list published by the White House, and he departed before Mr. Biden’s speech — the list name-checked the people Mr. Biden will want to bring closer into the fold in the months ahead. The lineup included elected officials in several battleground states, influential Black political operatives, and powerful philanthropists, like Melinda French Gates.

Choosing their guests, the president and Jill Biden, the first lady, mixed supporters of the president’s re-election effort with several Biden family members — granddaughters and Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, who is scheduled to stand trial on gun charges next month. (Hunter Biden’s wife, Melissa Cohen Biden, walked the red carpet alone.) There were few Hollywood types, though one notable attendee was the actor Sean Penn. Mr. Penn was photographed by the gossip website TMZ as he spent time with Hunter Biden, who has been working on a documentary about his life, in California earlier this month.

Hunter Biden and the actor Sean Penn listened to President William Ruto of Kenya as he spoke at the dinner.Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

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