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
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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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