With the sting from his party’s “shellacking” still fresh, President Obama departed this morning for the longest foreign trip of his presidency, a 10-day, four-country swing through Asia and the subcontinent that aides hope can let him briefly escape his domestic political woes.
Foreign travel provides Obama – like the presidents before him – a chance to stride across the global stage and look bigger than the critics back home. But this trip will not provide much respite if only because the other world leaders he will meet are expected to be seeking assurances that the president’s losses will not alter Washington’s dealings with them.
The trip will take the president to India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan. The first two stops are partly personal for Obama. In India, he can stress his desire to elevate the U.S. relationship with India to a position of pre-eminence in the region. In Indonesia, he can talk fondly about his boyhood days living in the world’s largest Muslim majority country.
The last two stops, though, are all business and feature critical summits where many leaders will be looking to the United States to reassert itself as the engine of global economic recovery. In Seoul, it will be the summit of G-20 countries, an organization that has been favored by Obama as the best group to use for economic discussions. Then in Yokohama, Japan, he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. APEC includes the leaders of 21 economies.
Before returning home on November 14, the president will also hold one-on-one talks with several world leaders, including President Hu Jintao of China and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia.
In the wake of Tuesday’s election, the White House fired back strongly at any suggestion the foreign trip could divert Obama’s attention from what the voters said they wanted him focused on – jobs and the economy.
“The president will travel to the fastest-growing region of the world, economically, and one of the fastest-growing countries in the world in India at the beginning of this trip,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday, calling the trip “an effort to help our businesses open up that market to create jobs here in America.”
He added, “I think that’s what the American people want their elected officials to do. This is a trip that is focused on the global economy, the issues – whether it is expanding a market in India, whether it is trade with South Korea, whether it is our concern about currency in the world – those are issues that affect people's pocketbook, their jobs right here in America.”
Bruce Riedel, who helped set up President Bill Clinton’s 2000 visit to India and is now at the Brookings Institution, said the India stop does have clear ramifications for the U.S. economy. “There are gigantic trade issues and gigantic economic issues,” he said.
He added, “On every issue that matters to Americans in the 21st century, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to nuclear war to the future of democracy, India is absolutely pivotal.”
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, put India at the heart of the president’s approach to the entire region. “Asia is critical to our foreign policy strategy,” he said. “”It’s the fastest growing market in the world. It’s fundamental to our export initiative. And India is a cornerstone of our broader Asia approach.”
Included on the crowded agenda for Obama’s talks in Mumbai and New Delhi are forging a closer partnership to fight terrorism, find ways to open the Indian market to more U.S. goods, nuclear cooperation, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two countries are also expected to approve some lucrative plane sales to India. In just the last two years, India has purchased $4 billion in defense equipment from the United States.
The Indians are looking for some reassurance on U.S. resolve in Afghanistan, said Robert Blackwill, a top national security adviser to both President Bushes and now a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations. The Indians, he said, fear “a rapid and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States” if Obama adheres to his announced timetable.
There also is expected to be considerable discussion of China, with India unhappy to be cast as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the region and wanting to know more about Obama’s approach.
The White House said the president will stress the need to open markets. “What we seek,” said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, “is a level playing field for our companies ... I think we’re making progress.”
From India, the president will go to Indonesia, the country of his youth that he has disappointed by twice canceling trips there. This will be a much shorter visit than the earlier trips were supposed to be. But the emotional impact is expected to be large, helping with the administration’s outreach to the Muslim world.
"It is a unique situation to have a president who was raised part of his life in Indonesia,” said Victor Cha, who was NSC director for Asian affairs until 2007 and is now on the faculty at Georgetown University. “The optic of that is going to be incredible. It will be an image that will be broadcast around the world.”
It also, he said, signals that U.S. policy in Asia will no longer overlook Indonesia in favor of China, Japan, and Korea.
After the brief stop in Indonesia, the president will enter the summit phase of the trip – G20 in Seoul and APEC in Yokohama. It will be at these two summits that the president is likely to face questions about the meaning of the U.S. election.
“Much of Asia was watching what happened in these elections and there is already concern about America turning inward and being distracted by two wars and a financial crisis,” said Cha. “So there will be a lot of attention to these elections and I’m sure it will be one of the key questions he gets asked by the other leaders.”
Part of the reason for the interest is that the rest of the world still demands American economic leadership.
“They absolutely still look to the U.S.,” said Cha. “There is a lot of talk about China. But in the end, people look to the U.S. for recovery. They want the U.S. to recover but they also look for the U.S. to lead.” He said they want to know how to balance “massive deficits” in the world’s largest economy – the United States – and massive surpluses in the world’s second largest economy – China.
They will want answers from Obama and assurances that he has the American economy firmly on the road to a robust recovery.
In addition to attending the G20 summit, the president also will face some sticky questions about issues between the United States and South Korea, none more pressing that the long-delayed ratification of the free trade agreement bequeathed Obama by the Bush administration.
Obama, while pushing for better language on beef and automobiles, had promised to have the issues resolved in time for this trip. But early indications from the administration are that those issues remain unresolved on the eve of the trip.