Obama's Trip Focuses On The Pacific

Nov 11, 2011
Originally published on November 11, 2011 5:25 pm
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President Obama left town this morning for the third Asia trip of his presidency. Before visiting Australia and Indonesia, he will begin in Hawaii, where leaders from around the Pacific region are gathering for the APEC Summit. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the incentives pulling Mr. Obama across the ocean and the forces tugging on him to stay at home.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Every year, the German Marshall Fund surveys Americans' attitudes toward the rest of the world. This year, the poll found something surprising.

ZSOLT NYIRI: We saw a big shift this year when the majority of Americans say that their country's national interest is with the countries of Asia.

SHAPIRO: This is Zsolt Nyiri, who runs the Transatlantic Trends Report for the Marshall Fund. In every previous survey, Americans said their country's future lies with Europe - but no longer.

NYIRI: We found this to be the case, especially for the American youth. Those Americans who are between the ages of 18 to 24, 76 percent of them said that Asia is more important for their national interests than the countries of the European Union.

SHAPIRO: President Obama might never want to put it in such stark terms. After all, he doesn't want to offend America's European allies, but his administration shares this view. Here's how President Obama greeted South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, at the White House last month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States is a Pacific nation and America's leading once more in the Asia Pacific.

SHAPIRO: By leading in the Asia Pacific, President Obama means, in part, we're not just buying from China anymore. We're selling. At the White House this week, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes explained that this region's growing middle class can be a market for American goods.

BEN RHODES: The vast majority of the export potential in the world is in the Asia Pacific, so when the president sets a goal of doubling U.S. exports to support hundreds of thousands of American jobs, again, that's very much going to be rooted in our ability to open markets in Asia Pacific.

SHAPIRO: Congress recently passed a free trade agreement with South Korea. On this trip, President Obama is working on a larger trade deal involving nine countries spanning both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

The message from the White House is that by flying halfway around the world President Obama is helping folks back home on the mainland. Not everyone is convinced, says Ernest Bower. He directs the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

ERNEST BOWER: There is pressure here not to do the trip and, you know, it's always better to be in Indiana than Indonesia.

SHAPIRO: That pressure seems to arise any time President Obama goes abroad for more than a few days. He twice postponed an earlier Asia trip to deal with the Gulf oil spill and the health care debate. He was criticized for going ahead with a trip to Latin America just as NATO started bombing Libya.

Those pressures to stay home are even stronger with the presidential election just one year off, but Bower says cutting this trip short would be a mistake.

BOWER: It would underlie a narrative that the Chinese have promoted in some sense that the Americans are interested in Asia, but they're not consistently engaged.

SHAPIRO: What President Obama leaves behind is a congressional supercommittee that's crashing on a deadline to find more than $1 trillion in deficit reduction. In public, the members have appeared dysfunctional and gridlocked. Some people have urged President Obama to get more deeply involved in the negotiations, saying a hands-off approach shows a lack of leadership.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke this week in Washington.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The executive branch must do more than submit a plan to a committee and then step aside and hope the committee members take action.

SHAPIRO: But the president has recently been washing his hands of Congress. In event after event, his motto has been...

OBAMA: We're going to act on our own because we can't wait for Congress to help our families and our economy.

SHAPIRO: So Mr. Obama is leaving the country, returning just three days before the congressional supercommittee's due date and, instead of spending the next week wading through the partisan muck, he'll speak to an international audience where he's more popular and perhaps more influential.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.