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ANALYSIS - Obama in Asia - building block or bow?

SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama arrives home on Thursday with no big policy breakthroughs after more than a week in Asia trying to recast the U.S. relationship with a dynamic region.

Folk artist Kang Yongguo carves a portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama on an eggshell in Shenyang, Liaoning province November 15, 2009. REUTERS/China Daily

Critics in Washington complained that Obama was too accommodating to foreign leaders during his four-country, eight-day trip -- particularly in China and in Japan, where his low bow to the Emperor raised eyebrows in the United States.

They say he failed to achieve concrete results on trade, economic issues and human rights and questioned what had happened to the Obamamania that greeted the president on earlier trips to Europe.

“We didn’t come halfway across the world for tickertape parades,” said Obama senior adviser David Axelrod. “We came here to lay a foundation for progress. We’ve done that.”

Yet, Obama seemed to accede to China’s efforts to control his visit there. Observers took Beijing’s lack of public concessions as an indication that Obama -- facing crushing national debt and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- lacks bargaining power with the largest holder of U.S. foreign debt.

“I would characterize the press coverage in the United States as being somewhere between skeptical and negative,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“The (press) consensus has been that the White House proceeded on this trip without a very clear game plan and to the extent that it did go with a list of concerns, very few of them were met.”

The Democratic leader also left behind pressing challenges at home -- economic worries, vehement Republican opposition to his plans to reform healthcare and a wrenching decision on how many more U.S. troops to commit to the war in Afghanistan.

With Americans anxious about their jobs and the war in Afghanistan, a new Quinnipiac University opinion poll showed Obama’s national job approval rating dropped below 50 percent for the first time since he took office in January. Other surveys have put his popularity in the mid 50s.

U.S. unemployment climbed above 10 percent before the trip and while Obama was away the government reported a surprising drop in home construction in October, in a sign the U.S. economy is struggling to emerge from recession.

During Obama’s trip to Seoul, U.S. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid released a long-awaited healthcare reform plan, setting the stage for a prolonged fight with Republicans over Obama’s top domestic priority.

“I think folks are wondering why this is happening and he’s out of the country,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.


Aides said the administration was taking a longer view of the trip to Japan, Singapore for regional summits, Shanghai and Beijing and South Korea, and was making progress in private.

“We’re laying the foundation for progress, whether it’s climate change, on some of the security issues, economic issues,” Axelrod said.

“The discussions that he had on this trip advanced our goals. This is not an immediate gratification business. I understand that Washington is in the immediate gratification business.”

Obama pressed China on issues important to the United States, such as the U.S. view that China should let its yuan currency rise in value. Washington says an undervalued yuan puts U.S. manufacturers at a disadvantage and is fueling global economic imbalances.

President Hu Jintao ignored the issue in comments to the media, instead dwelling on trade protectionism, which China says unfairly threatens access to U.S. markets.

The White House also agreed to hold a “press conference” with no questions and Beijing reneged on an agreement to allow a nationwide transmission of Obama’s townhall meeting with Chinese students.

“Obama did not put enough pressure on the Chinese for opening up their markets to U.S. goods, cracking down on intellectual rights infringements, and standing up to local protectionism,” said Ilan Alon, director of the China Center at Rollins College in Florida.

However, he said Obama did the right thing in respecting Chinese culture. “Guanxi -- the word signifying relations in Chinese -- takes a long time to build and can only happen over time with the building of trust,” he said.

Brookings’ Galston said time could prove the administration right. He noted that another young president Obama is sometimes compared to -- John F. Kennedy -- experienced foreign policy disasters -- the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and a disastrous meeting in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that led to the Berlin Wall in his first year.

“This was a not very successful foreign trip,” Galston said. “... That’s unfortunate, but it’s not a disaster.”

“What should happen now is they come back home and the president says, ‘We’ve spent the first year changing the tone, and that’s important, but it’s not enough,’” he said.