Obama back from Asia pumping economic competition

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 8:47 PM

President Obama returned from Asia on Sunday with a warning to Republican congressional leaders and the American public, saying the United States is "going to have to step up our game" to compete with the potent Asian economies he witnessed.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, Obama said he learned during his 10-day trip that "all of Asia is eager for American engagement and leadership," adding that after a period of difficult economic times at home "there's a tendency for us to think that somehow Asia is moving and we're forgotten."

"We should feel confident about our ability to compete, but we are going to have to step up our game," he said, adding that spending on education and in other areas that are important to long-term economic development should be a priority.

Obama left Washington soon after the Nov. 2 midterm elections, which handed Democrats a sharp setback with the loss of their House majority and a handful of Senate seats. He will meet this week with emboldened Republican leaders to identify issues on which the two parties can work together, such as the expiring George W. Bush-era tax cuts and an arms-control agreement with Russia.

But before his planned meeting Thursday at the White House with congressional leaders from both parties, Obama warned Republicans, in particular, that "campaigning is different than governing."

"They're still flush with victory, having run a strategy that was all about saying no," he told reporters as he landed in Washington. "But I am very confident that the American people were not issuing a mandate for gridlock. They want to see us make progress precisely because they understand instinctually how competitive things are and how we have to step up our game."

The president said his priority is to make sure that "taxes don't go up for middle-class families" when the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year. He maintained that the country cannot afford to preserve the "hugely expensive" tax cuts on income above $250,000, although the issue will be the subject of negotiation between the parties.

"And then we're going to have a whole bunch of time next year for some serious philosophical debates," Obama said. "And they should welcome those debates."

Earlier Sunday, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Yokohama, Japan, Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will be his top foreign policy priority in the lame-duck session of Congress.

Obama and Medvedev signed the START seven months ago in Prague. But the full Senate has yet to ratify the agreement, and the delay is threatening to undermine improvements in the U.S.-Russia relationship that Obama has overseen.

Former senior officials in Republican and Democratic administrations have called for the Senate to quickly approve the treaty, saying that without it the United States will lose an invaluable window on the Russian nuclear arsenal.

The new agreement would limit the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550, a two-thirds reduction from when the first START agreement took effect nearly two decades ago.

A senior administration official told reporters in Japan after the two leaders met that "there's a nervousness, of course, about this dragging on, and the symbolism of it dragging it would not be good for U.S.-Russia relations."

Obama told reporters on Air Force One that he feels "reasonably good about our prospects" for getting the treaty through the lame-duck session. He said his administration is working with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has been preventing a vote until he secures more money to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

"When we look at how important Russian cooperation has been on issues like Iran sanctions, on issues like transit into Afghanistan for our equipment for our troops, my hope and expectation is that, given this is a good treaty, given it has the support of previous Republican senior government officials, that we should be able to get it done," Obama said.

After his only extended overseas trip of the year, the president will have a few days to spend on domestic politics before heading for a two-day NATO summit in Lisbon at the end of the week.

Asked whether he had time abroad to reflect on the "mid-course correction" he said was needed after the recent elections, Obama said that he had "spent the first two years trying to get policy right."

"In that obsessive focus on policy, I neglected some things that matter a lot to people," he said, citing the earmark reform, maintaining a bipartisan tone in Washington, and "making sure the policy decisions I made were fully debated with the American people.

"I'm going to redouble my efforts to go back to some of those first principles," he said. "And the fact that we are out of crisis - although still, obviously, in a difficult time - I think will give me the capacity to do that."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company