No one could blame President Obama if he wants to get as far away as he can from the bodies of defeated Democratic candidates strewn across the American landscape, far away from the gloating of Republicans and far away from the doubts he can be an effective leader over the next two years. So it is perhaps serendipitous that the president left Saturday for the longest foreign trip of his presidency, a 24,000-mile trek through three countries and two continents that will have him attend four international summits.
The trip, though, is unlikely to give him much respite from the new political realities ushered him by Tuesday’s midterm elections. Word of his party’s losses and his weakened grip on power has made it to all the corners of the globe he will hit, from Beijing to Rangoon, Myanmar, to Brisbane, Australia. The Global Times, run by the Communist Party in China, gleefully stated that “a weak Obama must cooperate with China even more.” China’s state-run media quickly labeled Obama “a lame duck.” The Washington Post quoted an Asia analyst in Tokyo calling Obama “the incredible shrinking president.” In Russia, the state-owned Tass news agency carried a statement by the head of the foreign affairs committee in parliament calling the election outcome a “Democratic failure” and “a personal defeat for Obama.”
“This is going to be a tough trip for the president,” said Ernest Bower, codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert on Southeast Asia. He said Obama will face the same questions at the week’s varied summits, starting with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing. That will be followed by meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, and, finally, by the G-20 summit in Australia. In all, the president will meet with more than 50 world leaders. And they all will have some variation of the same question.
“They’re wondering, who is Barack Obama now after the midterm elections?” said Bower. “They’ll be trying to discern whether he has the commitment and political capability, political capital to follow through on earlier commitments.… Is he a rock star? Is he a lame duck? I think the jury’s out.” Bower said the optimists among the Asian leaders hope the president may have been liberated by his defeat on Tuesday. They want to believe, he said, “that President Obama has the Asian engagement DNA in his blood. It’s what he wants to do. But he has been sort of hijacked by domestic politics and the elections in the United States, and that now he may be able to turn to Asia for legacy issues.”
Other analysts are less optimistic. “The larger question hanging over this trip is whether a diminished Obama can revive U.S. strategic leadership in the Asia Pacific,” said David Dollar, who spent two decades at the World Bank and was country director for China and is an expert on Asian economies. Kenneth Lieberthal, senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in the last two years of the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said a major challenge for Obama this week is to allay the fears of allies.
“It’s important for the president to make clear by his posture, by his agenda, and by what he indicates he can commit to on this trip, to show that when it comes to most aspects of foreign policy, the executive branch leads in the U.S. and that he is determined to use his last two years in office, among other things, to be a very active player in foreign policy,” said Lieberthal. He acknowledged that “the election does not help him.” But he said the president can rebound. “He has to go out there and make the case,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why these trips and personal meetings with other leaders are very important.”
If recovering from the election is Obama’s first challenge, it is certainly not his only one for a trip on which every leg carries diplomatic peril. At every stop, he must confront doubts across the region that he is ready to do what it takes to fully implement the “pivot to Asia” that has been at the heart of his foreign policy. In Beijing, he must try to repair damage to his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping on issues ranging from the Hong Kong democracy protests to trade negotiations, Chinese cyberattacks on U.S. companies and the Pentagon, human rights, China’s dispute with Japan over a chain of islands in the East China Sea, and China’s fights with several other countries over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.
This will be Obama’s fourth meeting with Xi, after 12 meetings with his predecessor Hu Jintao. But the friction between Xi and Obama has grown. “The relationship has gone fairly badly over the second half of last year and especially the first half of this year,” said Lieberthal. Obama can be expected, though, to publicly thank Xi for China’s provision of help for the treatment of Ebola in Africa.
In Myanmar, formerly called Burma, the president also faces delicate diplomatic challenges. Two years ago, when he made his historic trip to Myanmar, Obama was able to celebrate the military leadership’s initial steps toward reform and the freeing of political prisoners. But with the country’s 2015 elections approaching, the regime has backslid and he can be expected to press President Thein Sein to get the reforms back on track. He will meet with Myanmar leaders and the opposition both in the new capital of Naypyidaw and in Rangoon, also known as Yangon.
Ironically, in the wake of a domestic election campaign in which Democrats suffered because of the perception of a weak economy, the strongest card the president can play in all the summits—and particularly at the G-20 meetings in Brisbane—is the robust nature of the American economic recovery.
“The U.S. economy is performing pretty well and seems to be accelerating, whereas Europe is slowing down and there’s the risk of deflation and recession,” said Dollar, who is also a senior fellow at Brookings and was the Treasury Department’s economic and financial emissary to China in Obama’s first term. “Japan is slowing down, emerging markets are slowing. So it’s an interesting moment where, despite the election results, the U.S. president goes in with a fairly strong hand.”
There is also, from the perspective of Asian and Pacific leaders, a silver lining to Obama’s political setbacks. The region has a major stake in the stalled negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the effort by 14 Asia and Pacific countries to forge a free trade zone that could give a significant boost to the world economy. One of the reasons progress has stalled is that trade promotion authority—formerly known as fast track—has not been granted by Congress. With Democrats in control of the Senate, current Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to bring TPA up for a vote. But on the day after the election, both future Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the president spoke of the TPP and trade agreements as one area of potential agreement.