Analysis: Image triumphs, economic failures for Obama in Asia

YOKOHAMA, Japan Sun Nov 14, 2010 9:22am EST

President Barack Obama listens to remarks by Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev during their meeting at the APEC Summit in Yokohama, November 14, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young

President Barack Obama listens to remarks by Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev during their meeting at the APEC Summit in Yokohama, November 14, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may have gone to Asia with hopes of putting his party's mid-term election defeats behind him, but they dogged him all the way.

Obama heads home on Sunday from his trip to India, Indonesia and economic summits in South Korea and Japan after public relations triumphs on his first stops, but disappointments on the economic issues that were the primary focus of the trip.

"The president sought to send the message that he gets it -- that trade is fundamental to a sustained and strong U.S. economic recovery and the creation of new American jobs," said Ernest Bower, an Asian policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"However, as his visit to Korea demonstrated, he is not yet in control on the trade front."

Foreign leaders stood up to Obama at the G20 summit in Seoul, refusing to back Washington's desire for hard targets to support its push for balanced global growth and pressure on China to move to a market-driven exchange rate.

In an embarrassing setback for both Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, U.S. and South Korean negotiators failed to reach an agreement on their stalled free trade pact, after Obama had pledged to have a deal in time for his visit.

And in Japan, where Obama attended an Asia-Pacific economic forum, Washington made little headway in efforts to expand its TransPacific Partnership trade pact.

"Clearly, the trip was more difficult than Obama hoped for," said Julian Zelizer, a historian and public policy expert at Princeton University in New Jersey.

"The chilly reception toward U.S. monetary policy -- widely covered by the international press -- was a difficult moment. It revealed how the mid-terms have weakened Obama's political standing and how much impact international forces will have on the ability of the U.S. to recover," he said.

The Democratic president left for Asia just three days after his party suffered big defeats in mid-term elections at the hands of voters worried over the sputtering U.S. economy and unemployment stuck near 10 percent for more than a year.

The trip was intended to counteract that frustration with a stress on opening new markets for American goods and improving the jobs picture, so the timing was especially tough.

"The coverage has been quite negative. The dominant narrative is an embattled president representing a weakened nation," said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"All in all, not the kind of trip a president who has just suffered an electoral rebuff needs," he said.

COUNTERBALANCING CHINA

In India, Obama cemented his close relationship with the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on a state visit.

He endorsed India's quest for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and lifted restrictions on its trade.

Accompanied by a large business delegation, Obama also announced trade deals he said would generate 50,000 U.S. jobs.

More importantly, Obama -- and especially first lady Michelle Obama -- won over the Indian public and press through cultural events such as tributes to independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and conversation and even dances with "regular" people.

Indonesia, where Obama lived for four years as a child, was a visit of just 17 hours -- shortened by an erupting volcano -- but another public relations coup. Obama signed an agreement to boost ties, and used his time in the biggest Muslim majority nation to reach out to the Islamic world.

But his major triumph in Jakarta was his connection with the public. His use of the local language and shared childhood memories thrilled Indonesians, who hailed him as a returning hero and son.

At every stop, he displayed close ties to leaders who look to Washington's influence in Asia as a counterbalance to an aggressive China.

"The U.S. is not strong enough to handle these multiple challenges on its own and needs partners. But we are also strong enough -- and will remain so for many years -- so that the democracies of Asia want us to stay engaged," said Walter Andersen of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

As he assessed the trip, Obama said he expected positive results over time.

"We should not anticipate that every time countries come together that we are doing some revolutionary thing. Instead of hitting home runs, sometimes we're going to hit singles. But they're really important singles," he told a news conference.

But on his return, he must square off against rival Republicans newly emboldened by their election victories, and eager to roll back or repeal his major legislative triumphs.

(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)