The Stiff Challenges Obama Faces Abroad

Can he salvage relations with India and improve trade relations elsewhere?

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After a discouraging election for President Obama's party, the commander-in-chief is hitting the road for a 10-day trip to Asia. The president will visit India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, giving special attention to economic issues and international trade. Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that will meet Obama on this trip:

  • The Administration Is Casting This as a Jobs Trip, writes Michael Shear at The New York Times:

The simplified focus on jobs as a primary purpose of the Asia trip is no accident. More than 60 percent of the voters on Tuesday told exit pollsters that the economy was their number one issue. They said repeatedly that their anger was the result of a feeling that Washington had not focused on improving the faltering economy.

Broadly speaking, that’s something that Mr. Obama and his aides already knew. But the election sent a strong message that the voters are holding Democrats and the administration responsible for the lack of progress to increase job creation.

Obama will face pressure to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy, such as using more force in Afghanistan and keeping troops there longer, after Republicans made gains in the Senate and captured the House of Representatives.

But foreign policy is also an area where Obama could have a relatively free hand and he is likely to start efforts to rebuild his image abroad when he begins a trip to Asia on Friday.

Bill Clinton fought back to win a second term as president after heavy Democrat losses in midterm elections in 1994, but Obama can expect no easy victories in the foreign policy arena.

Bogged down in health care and bailouts at home, and in “Afpak” abroad, Obama has let the alliance with India wither on the vine. This has frustrated India deeply, especially as a perception came to grip New Delhi that some of Obama’s neglect was payback to India for its closeness to his predecessor. India pushed back hard and furiously at Obama’s early, tone-deaf attempt to foist Richard Holbrooke on the Indian subcontinent as some sort of “Kashmir czar,” and New Delhi has returned, to a noticeable extent, to the pre-Bush method of dealing with America: watch first, and closely; trust later, and sparingly. It is remarkable how an alliance that had seemed so electrifying—indeed, one that had all the hallmarks of a “paradigm shift” in international relations—has been so quickly squandered.

On some economic issues, the trip will play out as Mr. Obama against the world, with the U.S. president as one of the last adherents to Keynesian economic policies, which promote the use of deficit spending and tax cuts to spur economic growth.

The recent election in Britain brought down Mr. Obama's ally on economic policy, Gordon Brown, and brought to power a prime minister, David Cameron, who is going the opposite way. He is pursuing budget cuts and tax increases designed to quickly tame the U.K. budget deficit. He hopes a boost to private-sector confidence will offset the pain of austerity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is lobbying European countries that have large budget deficits to follow suit.

For many Muslims, American policies do not differ markedly from one president to the next, and represent the hegemonic designs of a Western superpower, or even a vendetta against Islam. Obama has presided over the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, a plan set in motion by Bush, but a troop surge in Afghanistan and obstacles to a deal between Israel and the Palestinians appear to have undermined outreach to Muslims, embodied in his "new beginning" speech in Cairo last year.

"I don't respect Obama any longer since he's done nothing for peace," said Raheela Nawaz. a 25-year-old housewife in the Pakistani city of Multan. She asserted that American drone attacks on suspected Taliban and al-Qaida targets in Pakistani tribal areas were "increasing hate against America."

  • Tons of Planning Goes Into This, writes Steven Thomma at McClatchy:

Months in the making, such a trip involves hundreds if not thousands of people and logistics, from making sure runways can handle Air Force One to Hollywood-worthy stagecraft designed to get just the right image and message to TV screens at home and abroad. The costs run into tens of millions of dollars.

When done just right, it can help define a presidency and send a message to the world — think of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan speaking defiantly at the Berlin Wall. It can symbolize a turning point in U.S. relations with the world — think of Richard Nixon at the Great Wall of China.

When it doesn't, it can embarrass a president — recall Reagan honoring the war dead in a German cemetery that included the graves of Nazi officers, or George W. Bush walking off a stage in China only to find the door stuck shut.

  • The $200M/Day Trip?  Some conservatives, including Matt Drudge and Michele Bachmann, have been making hay of a thinly sourced article in the Press Trust of India reporting that the president's trip will cost taxpayers $200 million per day, which is more expensive than the war in Afghanistan's daily tab. The non-partisan group has called these claims "false" and "hard to swallow" while Politico's Josh Gerstein finds them "likely untrue" and "unsupported." Here's a video with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs addressing the issue with reporters:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.