Obama heads back to Washington early Sunday feeling upbeat about his Asia-Pacific tour, although the good vibes will probably not last long. A bipartisan congressional “supercommittee” appears unlikely to meet a Wednesday deadline to reach agreement on a debt-reduction plan, and the fallout almost certainly will engulf the president again.
By taking his case abroad, however, Obama temporarily put distance between himself and the political impasse that has nearly paralyzed Washington. The president largely succeeded in putting flesh on his administration’s bare-bones declaration that it was pivoting its attention to a region where U.S. influence had waned.
He announced plans to create a new regional trade pact, establish a distant U.S. military outpost in Australia and reopen diplomatic relations with a long-cloistered autocratic government in Burma. In doing so, Obama sent a signal to China that the United States will not allow it to bend international rules at the expense of American businesses and global security — simultaneously appealing to the U.S. business community and blunting criticism from Republican rivals that he has taken a soft line with the country’s fast-growing rival.
“In the United States, there are times where we question our influence around the world,” Obama said in Honolulu, answering questions at a forum of 1,000 large-company chief executives who do business in the region. “But the news I have to deliver for the American people is: American leadership is still welcome.”
The reason, he added, is that the United States goes beyond its own parochial interests to set up “rules and norms” in the international arena. Those nations that failed to follow, Obama said, would face U.S. sanctions.
Time and again, it was China that bore the brunt of Obama’s criticism for failing to “play by the rules.” Obama’s top aides told reporters that the president stressed, in a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, that U.S. business executives have grown frustrated with the slow pace of reform in China’s economic policies, which the executives felt unfairly kept the country’s currency values low and looked the other way on violations of intellectual property rights.
The message was aimed at shoring up confidence in the business community that the Obama administration is willing to take a tougher approach with China. The administration also announced progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with eight other nations, a free-trade agreement that does not include China.
The moves appeared to both encourage and worry business leaders, who see growing exports to China as their most important and trickiest market. Republican presidential candidates, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, have attacked China’s policies from the campaign trail, and Obama’s ability to convince the business community that he is equally determined to hold China accountable was critical to his mission over the past nine days.
Bill Weldon, chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, attended the Honolulu forum and came away impressed by Obama’s performance.
“The message about trade was very clear. The message about support for U.S. businesses was clear,” said Weldon, one of three executives who proclaimed public support for the president’s agenda after the event. “He said that the U.S. is at its best when we are playing by the rules and everybody else is playing by the rules.”
Back home, other executives wondered whether Obama would follow through on his trade promises and whether the bolder rhetoric and actions might irritate China, scuttling greater openness and access to Chinese markets.
Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, described Obama’s remarks on China as “pretty tough,” saying he basically cast China as a “currency manipulator” — language that Treasury Department officials have been cautious about using.
Of Obama’s statement that China does not play by international rules, Prestowitz, a Commerce Department trade negotiator during the Reagan administration, said: “There’s always the question, ‘Does he really mean it?’ So far, he hasn’t demonstrated that he does.”
Obama did not completely blunt criticism from the right, but he did narrow the rhetorical gap between himself and his rivals. While Romney did not address Obama’s overseas trip, he made clear during a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., that he would adopt a tougher stance with China than the president has.
“My concern about China is they don’t play by the rules,” Romney said at a forum for 100 business leaders, using the phrase Obama had co-opted from him. “We simply can’t keep on pretending that China’s not emptying out our factories, and we have to acknowledge that by violating their agreements, by not living up to the principles of truly free trade, we’re losing jobs.”
Obama walked a fine line in his public and private parrying with China. As president, he had to balance his admonition that the rapidly expanding power toe the line while at the same time treading carefully enough that he did not trigger a rupture that could be economically damaging.
But Obama showed that he was willing to push hard and take risks as he sought to place the United States at the forefront in helping shape the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century.
Using rhetoric that drew on historical wartime alliances, Obama announced that he would set up a permanent U.S. military presence about as far away from home as possible, at a remote base in northern Australia — a company of 250 Marines taking the first tentative steps into a new partnership with an important ally near fast-developing Southeast Asia.
And the president made a surprise decision to send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Burma, also known as Myanmar, for a two-day visit in December, signaling a potential diplomatic thaw with a country that has long been blacklisted by the United States for its human rights abuses. Burma, once considered irrevocably within China’s sphere of influence, has shown “flickers of progress,” Obama said, that have encouraged him even though there is a lot more to be done.
It was this last move, perhaps, that showed just how far Obama was prepared to go to position himself as the leader of a nation that has not lost its mojo, even if it is often difficult to tell in the messy hand-to-hand combat he engages in with the GOP.
Staff writers Steven Mufson and Philip Rucker in Washington contributed to this report.