KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — During a working lunch here with top Malaysian officials last weekend, President Obama delved into the details of trade issues, nonproliferation efforts and the nuances of nasi goreng recipes in different Southeast Asian countries.
The fact that Obama felt free to riff about fried rice preparations in the middle of a high-level diplomatic session speaks to an often overlooked part of his identity: His time spent in the region as a child, and his mother’s long residence there, makes Asia a central part of his life and personal history.
While Obama often utters a few halting words in the language of the countries he visits, he tossed off Malaysian phrases with ease during a state dinner in Kuala Lumpur. He also broke into a spontaneous exchange in Indonesian during a town hall meeting the next day. His personal connection to the region showed up in more subtle ways as well, as when he slowed his pace to keep in step with Malaysia’s king — a move many Malaysians saw as a cultural gesture of respect for an elder.
Obama’s sense of comfort in the region stems from his childhood time in Indonesia, where he lived between the ages of 6 and 10. That part of his past has garnered relatively little attention back home — an oddity that surfaces only when he does something that seems out of place, such as ordering green-tea ice cream during a campaign stop in Oregon.
On this trip, which ended Tuesday, it was different. Facing criticism at home for his handling of the crisis in Ukraine and the still-controversial Affordable Care Act, the president was clearly at ease during his week-long visit to the region. And he was most comfortable in Southeast Asia, the place of his childhood.
He talked both publicly and, according to aides, privately about his time in the region with his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, whose second husband was Indonesian, and their daughter, Maya Soetero, his only sibling. Dunham, who died in 1995, spent two decades living in the region doing anthropology work.
A couple of years ago, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia put on an exhibition featuring Dunham’s collection of batik, a type of cloth decorated using dye-resistant wax. Obama remarked on Saturday that batik “meant so much to her and it was part of her spirit, and so I’m deeply grateful to the people of Malaysia for celebrating that part of my mother’s life.”
In a town hall session with young Asian leaders Sunday, one of the attendees asked the president whether he had any regrets. With just a moment’s hesitation, Obama replied in frank terms about Dunham once more.
“The specific thing is I regret not having spent more time with my mother. Because she died early — she got cancer right around when she was my age, actually, she was just a year older than I am now — she died,” he said. “It happened very fast, in about six months. And I realized that — there was a stretch of time from when I was, let’s say, 20 until I was 30, where I was so busy with my own life that I didn’t always reach out and communicate with her and ask her how she was doing and tell her about things. I was nice and I’d call and write once in a while . . . I realized that I didn’t — every single day, or at least more often, just spend time with her and find out what she was thinking and what she was doing, because she had been such an important part of my life.”
Obama noted the importance of his Asian ties during his first trip as president to the region in 2009, to the amusement of some of his domestic critics. “As America’s first Pacific president,” he declared to an audience in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, “I promise you that this Pacific nation will strengthen and sustain our leadership in this vitally important part of the world.”
Conservatives were quick to pounce, citing it as another example of the president’s tendency to inflate his own image. “Obama’s exercise in rhetorical grandiosity, while hardly his first, was exquisitely meaningless,” Washington Post columnist George F. Will wrote in a Nov. 30, 2009, column, adding that William Howard Taft had governed the Philippines for almost as long as Obama had lived in the region.
Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said it is clear that Obama “feels very comfortable with our community, and the many diverse parts of our community.” The president has talked not only about living abroad, but also about learning to “make a mean curry” after living with South Asian roommates, she said.
But there are also limits to this connection, Yeung added. “You know how people used to say Bill Clinton was the first black president? I don’t actually hear a lot of Asian Americans saying he’s the first Asian American president.”
Although Obama garnered 73 percent of the Asian American vote in 2012, his personal ties to the region are not the sort of thing that will boost his domestic approval rating now. But as he eyes what foreign policy legacy he will leave behind, the connection could help him accomplish some objectives there, such as forging closer ties with Malaysia, according to aides and some experts.
Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, said the most significant part of the administration’s Asia “rebalance” is “a re-involvement in Southeast Asia that had been missing for quite some time.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, wrote in an e-mail that Obama “is clearly comfortable in this part of the world and has a familiarity with its culture and national traditions that resonates with publics who aren’t used to seeing that from an American President. That has foreign policy benefits, earning America goodwill that makes it easier for countries that have viewed the US with suspicion to cooperate more closely with us.”
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that while Obama’s rapport “helps him with public audiences” in the region, it is hard to discern any concrete results at this point.
Kurlantzick wrote in an e-mail that it “doesn’t mean his comfort and attractiveness in [Southeast] Asia doesn’t help with policy. It is just hard to draw a link.”
Obama’s connection with Northeast Asia is not quite as strong. While he said the sushi he ate at a three-star Michelin restaurant in Tokyo was “terrific,” the chef at the yakitori restaurant across the hall complained the next day that the president had eaten only half of the delicacies served to him.
In the end, though, Obama can always count on getting a nostalgic dessert while in Japan. He was asked by reporters on Friday whether he enjoyed the ice cream served at the Japanese state dinner, which was in the form of Mount Fuji.
He responded, “You know, they had the green tea at the bottom, that I’ve spoken about having when I was 6? I was very pleased.”