WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama launched a 10-day trip to Asia Friday aimed at boosting exports and creating U.S. jobs, three days after voters punished his Democrats for stubbornly high unemployment.
Obama, who has said creating jobs is his top priority, received some encouraging news just before he left Washington. The government reported faster-than-expected payroll growth, although the unemployment rate remained steady at 9.6 percent.
Obama called for “putting politics aside” in brief remarks before leaving for India, keeping up a conciliatory tone with victorious Republicans.
“We can’t spend the next two years mired in gridlock. Other countries like China aren’t standing still so we can’t stand still either. We’ve got to move forward,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
Obama will visit India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan on a tour that will blend trade talk and other economic diplomacy with assurances to Asian allies worried by an increasingly assertive China.
In India, Obama will attend a meeting along with hundreds of U.S. and Indian business leaders. He will announce a “comprehensive partnership” including economic ties in Indonesia, attend a G20 summit of global economic powers in Seoul and participate in an Asia-Pacific economic forum in Yokohama, Japan.
Rebuffed domestically by the loss of control of the House of Representatives to Republicans Tuesday, Obama can count on a warm reception in Asia where leaders want American power to counter Beijing, although some observers questioned how much the trip can yield given the pressures at home.
“Obama is going to be too preoccupied domestically, and you won’t see a more aggressive foreign policy going forward,” said Amitabh Mattoo, professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Administration officials accompanying Obama said the trip would be “highly significant.”
“It will take the relationship to a different level, going beyond bilateral issues to a more global partnership,” Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, told reporters traveling to India aboard Air Force One with the president.
The administration plans 17 or 18 announcements during the trip on a range of economic, security and political issues, White House officials said.
Aides say Obama will raise the issue of China’s yuan currency throughout the trip, as well as discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons and Chinese human rights when he meets with his Chinese counterpart during the G20.
U.S. officials say Beijing keeps the yuan’s value low against the dollar to aid exports at the expense of U.S. jobs. Regional tensions have also flared over territorial disputes and over Chinese exports of rare earth minerals needed to make many high-tech products.
Obama wants to double U.S. exports in five years and the administration is working to remove obstacles to a long-stalled U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement in time for Obama’s meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul.
Failure would send a negative signal about U.S. openness to more trade, after an election campaign marked by protectionist rhetoric over China and outsourcing hubs like India.
“There are very high expectations (that Obama can deliver an FTA) in Korea, not just in Korea, but in the region,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The FTA is important in terms of perceptions of the U.S. presence and leadership in Asia,” Cha said.
White House officials traveling with Obama said only that negotiations to overcome objections to the pact in Congress were continuing. Analysts expect the Republican House to be more supportive of the FTA, since the strongest objections to the deal had come from House Democrats.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull, Jeff Mason, Paul Eckert and Caren Bohan in Washington and Alistair Scrutton in New Delhi; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney and Vicki Allen