The Pivot Potential in Asia and at Home

Can President Obama reassure jittery allies and cut a deal?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) welcomes President Barack Obama prior to their talks at the Akasaka guesthouse in Tokyo on April 24, 2014.
National Journal
Major Garrett
April 23, 2014, 4:24 p.m.

TOKYO — Nervous Amer­ic­an al­lies need Pres­id­ent Obama to state the ob­vi­ous just to be­lieve he might ac­tu­ally be­lieve it and back it up.

That is the cost of the Ukraine crisis here.

Ja­pan’s lead­ing news­pa­per Yo­mi­uri Shim­bun asked Obama to “of­fi­cially de­clare that the (Sen­kaku) Is­lands are covered by Art­icle 5 of the U.S.-Ja­pan Mu­tu­al Se­cur­ity treaty.”

This has been U.S. policy since 1971, when the Sen­ate passed the Ok­inawa Re­ver­sion Treaty, giv­ing Ja­pan con­trol of the re­source-rich is­lands in the East China Sea after the United States oc­cu­pied them in 1945.

Obama echoed it.

“The policy of the United States is clear — the Sen­kaku Is­lands are ad­min­istered by Ja­pan and there­fore fall with­in the scope of Art­icle 5 of the U.S.-Ja­pan Treaty of Mu­tu­al Co­oper­a­tion and Se­cur­ity. And we op­pose any uni­lat­er­al at­tempts to un­der­mine Ja­pan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of these is­lands.”

The “uni­lat­er­al at­tempts” to poach the Sen­kaku Is­lands are com­ing from China, which claims the is­lands as part of its mari­time ter­rit­ory dat­ing back to 1534. China does con­cede los­ing them dur­ing the first Sino-Ja­pan­ese War but ar­gues Ja­pan was sup­posed to re­lin­quish them after World War II.

This is a long-sim­mer­ing dis­pute giv­en new po­tency here by China’s in­creased mil­it­ary am­bi­tions (the uni­lat­er­al cre­ation of an Air De­fense Iden­ti­fic­a­tion Zone in Novem­ber and ex­pans­ive nav­al in­vest­ment are just two ex­amples). Ja­pan has been made doubly nervous by China’s in­dif­fer­ence to Ukraine’s struggle against Rus­si­an oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea (Evan Me­deri­os, Obama’s top Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil ad­viser on Asia re­cently de­scribed it as “ag­nost­ic and un­will­ing to cri­ti­cize”) and to Rus­sia’s men­acing of Ukraine’s east­ern re­gions.

Hence the need to pin Obama down. Once he was pinned, Ja­pan’s top news­pa­per stated the ob­vi­ous: “It is very rare for Obama, who is known for ad­opt­ing a con­cili­at­ory at­ti­tude to­ward mul­tiple in­terests, to pub­licly use such clear-cut ex­pres­sions,” wrote Keiko Iizuka, Yo­mi­uri Shim­bun‘s Wash­ing­ton bur­eau chief. “Per­haps one mo­tiv­a­tion for Obama’s dir­ect­ness is to chal­lenge a pre­val­ent per­cep­tion of weak­ness, both home and abroad.”

The White House denies it’s un­der pres­sure to calm al­lies here and in Seoul, where a coun­try torn apart by the on­go­ing ferry tragedy is also in­creas­ingly un­nerved by North Korean mil­it­ary activ­ity and nervous Py­ongy­ang will be mo­tiv­ated to copy Vladi­mir Putin’s Ukrain­i­an ag­gres­sion. (Dis­puted ter­rit­or­ies and his­tor­ic­al, eth­nic, and lin­guist­ic ties have al­ways haunted North-South re­la­tions on the pen­in­sula.)

Obama must em­phas­ize his Asia pivot is real — mil­it­ar­ily and eco­nom­ic­ally. That will also mean get­ting ser­i­ous on trade. The Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship is bogged down here, with Ja­pan­ese ne­go­ti­at­ors re­luct­ant to ac­cede to de­mands for more U.S. auto and food im­ports if Obama is un­will­ing to rally con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats be­hind the le­gis­lat­ive means to pass the even­tu­al deal — Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity. Obama and Ja­pan­ese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe spent 90 minutes over world-fam­ous sushi here to make pro­gress on TPP and oth­er is­sues.

The mean­ing of Obama’s words and ac­tions are at the heart of Asi­an anxi­ety about de­fense and trade.

And though it’s un­re­lated, Obama’s words and ac­tions on an is­sue he’s sud­denly dis­covered — work­er train­ing — are worth equal scru­tiny. With or without a trade deal here, Amer­ica’s un­em­ployed and the chron­ic­ally un­em­ployed who are no longer of­fi­cially coun­ted need — des­per­ately need — in­vent­ive ac­tion to find new skills and jobs.

And that will re­quire, again, tough­ness of ac­tion to match the am­bi­tion of Obama’s words. I asked Obama at a work­er-re­train­ing event out­side Pitt­s­burgh last week if he re­gret­ted neg­lect­ing the is­sue for most of his pres­id­ency.

“The truth is we’ve been work­ing on this since I got in­to the pres­id­ency. And we’re build­ing on the work that we’ve been do­ing over the first four years,” Obama said. “What we’re still see­ing is or­din­ary folks who are eager to work hard, look­ing for a job, or already have a job, not see­ing their in­comes, their wages, their op­por­tun­it­ies in­crease.”

Obama put money to­ward work­er re­train­ing in the 2009 stim­u­lus law, but as a 2011 Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice re­port showed, a $5 bil­lion fund­ing in­crease since 2003 achieved very little. “Both the num­ber of — and fund­ing for — fed­er­al em­ploy­ment and train­ing pro­grams have in­creased … but little is known about the ef­fect­ive­ness of most pro­grams … nine fed­er­al agen­cies spent ap­prox­im­ately $18 bil­lion to ad­min­is­ter 47 pro­grams.”

Obama touted the be­ne­fits of work­er train­ing at the com­munity-col­lege level, where area busi­nesses de­clare a need for skills and the train­ing serves as a pipeline to ac­tu­al job open­ings.

“[What] a smart busi­ness-driv­en job-train­ing pro­gram gives us the ca­pa­city to do is to not just have folks train for the sake of train­ing. But rather, have them train with a spe­cif­ic job in mind, the busi­ness hav­ing already been in­volved in design­ing the cur­riculum. So they have con­fid­ence that, if a work­er com­pletes this course, that they can do the job at the fact­ory,” the pres­id­ent said.

“When you com­bine it with ap­pren­tice­ships and oth­er op­por­tun­it­ies to part­ner between the private and the pub­lic sec­tor, what you end up see­ing is not only folks get­ting jobs when they don’t have work, but also people in­side their own com­pan­ies who want to ad­vance sud­denly see­ing ca­reers open up to them. And that’s good for the en­tire eco­nomy.”

Most of this work is done without heavy fed­er­al in­volve­ment and Obama made no ref­er­ence to achieve­ments linked to his stim­u­lus fund­ing for fed­er­al re­train­ing. I raised this ob­vi­ous point by ask­ing if Obama was say­ing “it might not be a bad idea for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to get out of the work­er-train­ing pro­cess en­tirely.”

Obama re­cal­ib­rated.

“Well, here’s what we need to do. It — it’s not a mat­ter of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment get­ting out of the busi­ness; it’s — a mat­ter of do­ing it smarter. The money’s be­ing well spent, in many cases, as it is for ex­ample here. You’d have a part­ner­ship where you have a loc­al com­munity col­lege. They work with in­dustry groups or spe­cif­ic busi­nesses in their area. They design a cur­riculum. The — the gov­ern­ment then is fund­ing the train­ing for these work­ers. But they’re not mi­cro­man­aging the design of — of the train­ing. Rather, the train­ing is very spe­cif­ic to work that is out there that needs to be done. And what we need to do is to make sure that we’re do­ing more of that.”

Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden is now head­ing an ad hoc task force on work­er train­ing and joined Obama last week. To­geth­er, the two soun­ded at least open to talks with House GOP lead­ers on re­tool­ing fed­er­al re­train­ing pro­grams. Biden offered that he’s re­cently huddled with House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor on the is­sue in search of a deal — something Can­tor’s of­fice con­firms.

“I hope something will get done,” Biden told me. “I didn’t have a chance to tell the pres­id­ent I spent uh, some time with Eric Can­tor go­ing over the pos­sib­il­it­ies and our bot­tom line is we’re pre­pared to work, but what we don’t con­sider pos­it­ive is just tak­ing ex­ist­ing pro­grams, block-grant­ing them, and uh, you know, re­du­cing the amount of help and then walk­ing away. What you saw here today is what works. It’s a mat­ter of busi­nesses part­ner­ing with these com­munity col­leges and they’re ac­tu­ally provid­ing jobs. And that’s what this is all about, find­ing the skills for the jobs that are com­ing home, and are be­ing cre­ated. And the Re­pub­lic­ans want to play in that ter­rain, we’re anxious to do that.”

Obama told me he hoped Biden would forge a deal.

“There are cer­tain pro­jects that he’s taken on, like for ex­ample, this task force deal­ing with job train­ing, where, uh, he and his team are able to provide some con­cen­trated ef­fort and be­cause he’s the vice pres­id­ent he can knock some heads and drive some things that some­times may be harder even for a Cab­in­et sec­ret­ary to do. But, as Joe said, the op­por­tun­it­ies on these is­sues to work in a bi­par­tis­an way are there. What we’ve said is, let’s do it smarter, there are prob­ably some pro­grams that are re­ceiv­ing fund­ing right now that aren’t as ef­fi­cient as they should be, but let’s not re­duce it, let’s take money from pro­grams that aren’t work­ing and let’s meet all the un­filled needs with pro­grams that do work.”

House Re­pub­lic­ans have passed a bill to moth­ball or “stream­line” 35 dif­fer­ent fed­er­al train­ing pro­grams and block-grant fund­ing to gov­ernors — all in the name of ef­fi­ciency and min­im­iz­ing fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy. The bill at­trac­ted two Demo­crat­ic votes and is a policy pipe dream — just as un­real­ist­ic as the ori­gin­al gam­bit to cut farm-bill food-stamp fund­ing by $40 bil­lion over 10 years (the fi­nal deal cut $8.6 bil­lion). But some new think­ing on work­er train­ing is on the table — Obama and Biden’s words sug­gest as much. And House Re­pub­lic­ans can leave things as they are — riddled with in­ef­fi­ciency tab­u­lated and rhet­or­ic­ally ac­know­ledged by Obama and Biden — or take less than their bill calls for but move in the dir­ec­tion of few­er fed­er­al pro­grams, more state con­trol, and more dir­ect train­ing-to-job-open­ing re­quire­ments.

House Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Kline told me an open­ing ex­ists. “We can reach a bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al agree­ment on job-train­ing re­form le­gis­la­tion in the weeks ahead,” he said.

The ques­tion on this is­sue as well as trade and se­cur­ity here in Asia is: What do Obama’s words mean? Are they cred­ible? Will there be fol­low-through? Lead­ers here won­der. Kline won­ders.

Chron­ic­ally un­em­ployed Amer­ic­ans have reas­on to won­der too. But they alone need the most hope that thing can change.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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