President Obama, who has struggled to advance his vision for economic renewal at home, will take his pitch overseas this week to an audience of world leaders who could prove equally skeptical of his message at a time of global anxiety.
“It’s very hard for us to preach the economic gospel to Europe when they watched our debt-ceiling debate here and our [credit-rating] downgrade,” said Heather Conley, director of European programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Obama is scheduled to depart Washington late Wednesday for a two-day trip to Cannes, France, where the heads of the world’s 20 largest economies will gather for the Group of 20 summit. Organizers said the meetings will focus on how to contain Europe’s debt crisis while also trying to forge consensus on a path to stimulating worldwide economic growth, even as many countries, including the United States, wrestle with painful budget cuts.
The trip, the first for Obama outside the United States since he attended a smaller summit in France in the spring, could provide a crucial test of whether his political problems at home have compromised his influence abroad.
In the five months since the last global summit, Obama has focused on the domestic economy, fighting with Congress over ways to reduce the deficit and crisscrossing the nation to promote his $447 billion American Jobs Act, which remains stalled on Capitol Hill.
At a series of bilateral meetings in France, the president is expected to lay out his growth proposals: a mix of immediate spending to create jobs and longer-term fiscal discipline to reduce U.S. deficits.
But Obama faces a tough challenge after pointedly criticizing Europe’s handling of its debt crisis. During a town-hall-style event in Mountain View, Calif., last month, Obama said the Europeans were “scaring the world.”
European leaders struck back, telling administration officials to butt out and focus on their own fiscal problems. The Austrian and German finance ministers chided U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner in September for intervening in Europe’s affairs, with Germany’s Wolfgang Schauble dismissing as “stupid” a bailout idea advanced by Geithner. White House officials counter that the bailout plan adopted last week by European nations to help cash-strapped countries such as Italy and Spain borrow at least a trillion dollars is similar to an idea that Geithner proposed.
“The president said Europe was scaring the world; Europe thinks the U.S. is scaring the world,” said CSIS’s Conley, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs from 2001 to 2005. “We’re both finger-pointing at one another. I do not think the president has lost legitimacy, but it’s just very hard for us to tell other countries what to do.”
On his national jobs tour, Obama has consistently cited Europe’s economic malaise, along with the Japanese earthquake and the uprisings in the Middle East, as factors that have slowed the U.S. economic recovery. The president has called on Europe to take bold action to resolve its debt crisis.
But in an op-ed in the Financial Times last week, Obama vowed that the United States, as the world’s largest economy, “will continue to lead.”
“The single most effective thing we can do to get the global economy growing faster is to get the U.S. economy growing faster,” Obama wrote. “That’s why my highest priority is putting Americans back to work. It’s why I’ve proposed the American Jobs Act.”
Obama’s attempt to lead at a G-20 summit in Toronto in 2010, however, fell flat. While the president urged nations to continue spending to boost the fragile recovery, G-20 members instead approved an austerity plan aimed at halving deficits in three years.
Obama, weakened by the 2010 midterm elections that left Republicans in control of the House, has had similar difficulty imposing his will at home. His inability to convince the GOP to support his jobs package has left Washington in partisan gridlock, while the unemployment rate is stuck at 9.1 percent.
The president’s job approval ratings have slid dramatically, and his domestic focus has limited his ability to assert U.S. influence in global economic deliberations. Over the past 21 months, European leaders have held 14 economic summits, yet the debt crisis has worsened as nations have bickered over parochial interests.
“The standing of the U.S. internationally is simply not that great,” said Sebastian Mallaby, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on global economics. “U.S. leadership that in the past might have been helpful in pulling the Europeans together has eroded. The world’s natural postwar leader has its hands tied behind its back, and we’re not doing too well as a result.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney disputed the suggestion that Obama lacks leverage heading into the G-20 meetings because of his stalemate with Congress.
“While there is gridlock on jobs, we remain hopeful that that will change,” Carney said during a press briefing last week. Obama “carries with him to France the fact that we are pushing our Congress to act on these matters, and he comes as the leader of the largest economy in the world . . . so I think we continue to have a significant leading role to play.”
Further complicating matters for Obama, his trip to France will be followed a week later by a nine-day swing through Hawaii and Bali, Indonesia — for a pair of Asian economic summits — and a stop in Australia for a state visit.
The back-to-back international jaunts will disrupt the president’s weekly jobs tour, knocking him off message and placing him far from Washington as a bipartisan committee in Congress approaches a critical Nov. 23 deadline to agree on a plan to eliminate at least $1.2 trillion in U.S. debt.
Senior White House officials said other administration figures, such as Vice President Biden and Cabinet members, along with first lady Michelle Obama, will continue to push the jobs package across the country. And they predicted that in Asia, Obama will highlight how increased economic cooperation could boost U.S. exports and create middle-class jobs.
Still, the president is unlikely to get the kind of political boost from these trips that he did from his first G-20 summit in London in 2009. Then, the United States was in a recession and Obama, a new president, drew symbolic strength by standing for a photo with other heads of state as they pledged a multilateral response.
This go-round, that same “family-photo visual” won’t have the same emotive power, said Conley, the think tank analyst.
“How can that compare,” Conley asked, “to photos of Occupy Wall Street, the continued vigorous debate in Washington and our own questions about the unemployment rate?”