WASHINGTON — Rebuked by voters, President Barack Obama is turning overseas, heading to Asia for 10 days of diplomacy, tourism and dealmaking that could boost the battered chief executive and highlight his political skills on the world stage.
Obama risks criticism he’s fleeing the Democrats’ midterm election wreckage for friendlier territory as sets out Friday on the longest foreign trip of his presidency, a sojourn through India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan aimed at highlighting America’s increasing engagement with Asia.
The trip is anchored by must-attend gatherings of world leaders in South Korea and Japan, timing unconnected to Tuesday’s midterm elections. The abbreviated stop in Indonesia, where Obama spent four years as a boy, was already canceled and rescheduled twice.
In India, the White House is intent on showcasing its commitment to the world’s largest democracy, and U.S. economic engagement with a huge and growing trading partner. The administration also views strengthened ties with India and other Asian democracies as a counterbalance to China’s rising power.
The trip aims to “open up markets so that we can sell in Asia, in some of the fastest-growing markets in the world, and we can create jobs here in the United States,” Obama said Thursday. “And my hope is, is that we’ve got some specific announcements that show the connection between what we’re doing overseas and what happens here at home when it comes to job growth and economic growth.”
But this week’s Democratic bloodletting is sure to dog Obama to the other side of the globe as he readies for encounters with growing powers certain to be keenly aware of dealing with a newly weakened president backed by a divided Congress, its repercussions uncertain.
White House officials acknowledge Obama will have to spend some time overseas reassuring U.S. trading partners about the political changes in the U.S., but downplay any impact of the election on the president’s overseas agenda.
“Regardless of the election results, the president is committed throughout this whole trip … to doing what is right for expanding U.S. exports and creating jobs here at home,” said Mike Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.
Beyond seeking out economic benefit for the U.S., advisers are emphasizing Obama’s decision to visit four vibrant and growing democracies, an itinerary meant to reinforce support for democratic values at a time when the U.S. commitment to human rights worldwide has sometimes come into question. The president returns to the U.S. Nov. 14, a day ahead of an important and likely tense lame-duck congressional session where he’ll have to search for compromise with emboldened Republicans on extending Bush-era tax cuts, among other issues.
The president, whose popularity overseas has mostly held steady even as it’s waned at home, is making a point to engage with the populace along the way. He’s meeting with schoolchildren and holding a town hall for college students in India and speaking to a large, open crowd in Indonesia, where the president lived with his mother and Indonesian stepfather between ages 6 and 10.
Previously scheduled visits to Indonesia were canceled twice for domestic reasons, first because of final negotiations on the health care bill and then because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. This time Obama will spend less than 24 hours in the country and won’t be visiting any old friends or childhood haunts; the White House says there’s no time for that.
The president, who will be accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama for the first part of the trip, is squeezing in some sightseeing, including a visit to the enormous Istiqlal Mosque in Indonesia, the Great Buddha statue in Japan and the Gandhi museum in Mumbai. He opted against visiting the famed Golden Temple Sikh holy site in India, though White House officials denied rumors that it was because he would have had to wear a head covering that could have stirred false speculation that he’s a Muslim.
Although Obama visited Asia last year, this will be his first trip to India, a country of 1.2 billion people where U.S. officials see infinite economic potential. The president is spending three days there, dividing his time between Mumbai and the capital of New Delhi. It’s the longest single stretch he’s spent in any foreign country, a point U.S. officials are careful to emphasize.
He’ll meet with U.S. and Indian business leaders, including the chief executive of Boeing, and announcements on deals including possible purchases of Boeing aircraft by India are expected. The U.S. also will be pushing for more favorable terms for U.S. exports.
U.S. economic concerns also are front-and-center at a summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Seoul, followed by a meeting in Yokohama, Japan, of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Obama hopes to be able to announce concrete progress on a Korea free trade agreement, which has long been stalled in Congress primarily because of opposition from Democratic lawmakers over barriers to sales of U.S. autos in Korea, among other things. A more heavily Republican Congress could be more amenable to the deal.
Also high on the agenda is controversy over how China values its currency, with many in the U.S. contending it’s artificially low to keep Chinese exports cheap. Obama will meet at the G-20 with Chinese President Hu Jintao, but officials say they don’t expect the currency issue to be resolved.