GUAM — As he hopscotched across the Asian Pacific over the past nine days, President Obama cast himself as a leader determined to protect American interests and spread American values, willing to project power and take political risks for the sake of a better future.
It was a message that returned a degree of lift and optimism — and the notion of American exceptionalism — to the president’s political oratory, elements that have been largely absent in recent months as he has focused on the grinding task of creating jobs and curbing unemployment at home.
President Obama says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Burma as the U.S. looks to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress in the repressed country. (Nov. 18)
On a visit to Darwin, where some of the U.S. Marines bound for Australia will be based, President Obama spoke to U.S. and Australian troops about a shared purpose of the preservation of peace and security. (Nov. 17)
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.