President Barack Obama is ending three days of often-wonkish policy discussions with fellow world leaders to embark on two of the most photogenic and emotional events of his young presidency: meeting the pope at the Vatican and becoming the first black American president to visit a mostly black African country.
He was throwing in a televised news conference from Italy for good measure.
Obama, his wife and daughters were to meet Pope Benedict XVI shortly before leaving Italy late Friday for Ghana. The two men have spoken by phone but not met before, aides say.
In Ghana, officials expect a tumultuous reception for Obama, whose father was from Kenya. Because the first family arrives rather late Friday night, the main ceremony in Accra will occur Saturday, before he departs for Washington after a weeklong trip that started in Russia.
It will involve drumming groups and Ghanians "putting their best foot forward in terms of the cultural richness of an incredibly diverse country," White House adviser Michelle Gavin told reporters Thursday. To help accommodate the many who cannot attend, U.S. and Ghanian officials have scheduled "watch parties," radio broadcasts and video coverage in theaters, parks and other places.
"I do not believe that there is a way in which we could ever fulfill or assuage the desires of those in Ghana or on the continent on one stop," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
But first, Obama had some final business at the Group of Eight nations meeting in central Italy, where he has had mixed success in seeking accords on greenhouse gas emissions and other matters. He was to meet with several African leaders early Friday, then hold a news conference.
Next comes the audience with the pope, whose generally conservative views will not entirely mesh with Obama's. They are likely to discuss world poverty, the Middle East and other topics, aides say, but the visit will be largely personal and spiritual.
"There are issues on which they'll agree, issues on which they'll disagree and issues on which they'll agree to continue to work on going forward," White House national security adviser Denis McDonough told reporters Thursday.
"Given the influence of the Catholic Church globally," he said, and "the influence of the Catholic Church and church social teaching on the president himself, he recognizes that this is much more than your typical state visit."
Obama is a Protestant seeking a new church in Washington.
He will become the third straight U.S. president to visit Ghana, a relatively stable democracy in a continent wracked by poverty and heavy-handed governments. But he is the first such president of African descent.
Obama chose Ghana, Gavin said, "because it's such an admirable example of strong, democratic governance, vibrant civil society." There's much to admire, she said, and to hold up as "a counter to what one often hears about Africa."
On Saturday, Obama will meet with Ghana's president, John Atta Mills, and address the nation's parliament.