It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when it was assumed, naïvely and perhaps unfairly, that Barack Obama’s mere presence would charm the world.
After all, the U.S. war in Iraq and the cocksure style of George W. Bush were said to have so alienated friend and foe alike that an Obama presidency couldn’t help but be a balm on old wounds. First, he wasn’t Bush, and second, his multiracial background, youth abroad, and willingness to engage adversaries such as Iran without precondition seemed certain to enhance American stature in the world.
Were it so simple.
Obama’s Asia trip provides plenty of evidence that that hope was naïve. He didn’t get the coveted free trade agreement with South Korea and he didn’t get the rest of the Group of 20 powers to stand behind his criticism of China’s currency policies, which the U.S. believes have added to trade imbalances. What’s more, he got criticized for the money-pumping actions of the Federal Reserve. Obama himself noted that not every trip can be a home run. Singles count, too. And indeed the G-20 did agree to take up the questions of trade and savings imbalances later and more earnestly. Instead of a solid single, it looks more like a shallow hit that barely got him to first base.
The good news for Obama is that one trip doth not a presidency make. John Kennedy was seen as being outflanked by Nikita Khrushchev at their first summit meeting in Vienna in 1961. No one in the first or second year of the Reagan administration could have anticipated the sweeping arms control agreements that would mark the end of his second term. Things can go north as well as south.
But Obama is working with a set of conditions that surely would have hobbled a President McCain. We’re a debtor nation, and as anyone who’s ever taken out a loan knows, it’s hard to yell at your banker. It’s Bush’s Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke, who has taken these aggressive measures, and not without cause. Obama may have made mistakes—waiting too long, perhaps, to close the South Korea deal. No president, though, can bend the world to his will—even one in whom so much hope was placed.