Obama's story infused Asia tour
Trip long on biography, short on visible achievements

By Anne E. Kornblut
Thursday, November 19, 2009

SEOUL -- After taking his message as the "first Pacific president" through four countries in eight days, President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asia on Thursday with talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and a planned visit to U.S. troops stationed in the shadow of nuclear-armed North Korea.

At a news conference here, Obama said he and Lee had agreed that their countries will no longer engage the North in endless, inconclusive disarmament talks. Obama emphasized "the need to break the pattern of the past," but neither leader offered new proposals or timetables for a resolution of the nuclear impasse. Obama also said that the United States and its allies are working on ways to send a "clear message" to Iran on its nuclear program.

The Seoul stop was the last on a trip that has notably lacked concrete achievements but has seen Obama's personal narrative on full display, as he reminisced about the ice cream he ate during a childhood visit to Japan, invoked his "historic ties" to Indonesia and recalled his mother's work in the villages of Southeast Asia. After more than a week of using his biography to connect to audiences in Asia -- perhaps the last corner of the globe where he had yet to take his story -- Obama appeared as popular as ever among ordinary citizens in the region.

But is his biography-as-diplomacy approach beginning to show its limits?

Obama does not fly home with any big breakthroughs or any evidence that he has forged stronger personal ties with regional leaders. Even at the ground level, there was no Asian equivalent of the Cairo speech -- when he spoke to the Muslim world in the summer, invoking his father's Islamic heritage.

During the presidential campaign, Obama's narrative helped catapult him into the Oval Office as a leader who could bridge racial and regional divides. Since becoming president, he has used that message to greatest effect abroad -- talking about his African roots in Ghana and infusing remarks about race relations in Latin America with his own experience, among other examples.

At home, critics have accused him of being self-indulgent by viewing the world through such a personal lens. The question that may soon follow, however, is whether his "only in America" tale will yield the cooperation he seeks from foreign leaders, rather than just popular goodwill and curiosity.

White House officials say the payoff is evident. "One of his strengths on the world stage is that he is breaking down the sense that America and America's leaders don't have any understanding of or identification with the rest of the world," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said. "And that's an important value."

At a town hall meeting in Shanghai, Obama summoned the image of his two young daughters using the Internet to make a point about open Web access. And he dwelled on a theme well-worn in the United States but new to many Chinese: of his diverse nuclear family, including a Kenyan father, a Kansan mother and a sister who is half-Indonesian and married to a Chinese Canadian.

"So when you see family gatherings in the Obama household, it looks like the United Nations," Obama said, drawing laughter with a familiar campaign line.

Afterward, several guests described his personal appeal as impressive. "I would like to be his friend," said Xie Lijun, 28.

While President George W. Bush had a famously boisterous friendship with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi -- taking him to Memphis to visit Graceland, where Koizumi impersonated Elvis -- Obama has adopted a more professional stance. The new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, reported after meeting with Obama that the two had "grown quite accustomed to calling each other by our names."

Asia provides far less fertile ground for Obama's multiethnic biographical message than America, where it meshes with the country's self-image as a melting pot of immigrants. As a continent, Asia is hugely diverse, but its individual countries tend to be far more ethnically homogeneous, and often wary of diversity.

John Park, a Korea specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that Asians also look at people through the lens of economic development and business. "They like CEO types," he said. "In Europe, personality and the spoken word are at much more of a premium. In Asia, it is all about track record. No one has written President Obama off, but people are looking very carefully at what he'll achieve."

Obama's most significant Pacific or Asian connection is with Indonesia, where he spent four years as a boy living with his mother and his Indonesian stepfather. But this carries risks: Many were disappointed when their country was not included in the president's schedule.

There is another risk in Obama's global background as well: that of the far-flung family members who seem to continually emerge from the woodwork.

That point was underscored in China, where the president met with his half brother, Mark Ndesandjo, who shared the same father, Barack Obama Sr. Ndesandjo recently published a semi-autobiographical novel describing their father, a Kenyan who died in 1982, as abusive.

Obama, in an interview on CNN, said he met with Ndesandjo and his wife, who is Chinese, for about five minutes in Beijing. Although he has not read his brother's book, he said it was "no secret" that the elder Barack Obama had been a "troubled person."

"Obviously, it's a sad part of my history and my background, but it's not something I spend a lot of time brooding over," Obama said.

Correspondent Blaine Harden in Seoul and staff writer Andrew Higgins and researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company