Late in 2009, when President Obama was making his first trip to China, I did a running set of (increasingly amazed and and occasionally peeved) notes on how the traveling U.S. press corps was covering the whole thing as if it were an election-year campaign swing. Just as they had a year earlier, when candidate Obama was trying to close the sale against John McCain, many stories judged his success or failure by crowd size and enthusiasm, Obama's pep on the podium, his body language in public appearances, and so on. On those standards, overall they judged it a gigantic flop.
I argued at the time that the things that mattered about the trip, for better or worse, were not likely to be displayed in the immediate public interactions between an American president and his Chinese counterparts. And looking back on the evolution of the administration's foreign policy, I contended earlier this year in my long story about Obama that U.S. positioning toward China was actually one of the more chessmaster-like features of Obama's overall policy. That is, love the current administration or hate it, you really should consider China-handling one of the more successful parts of its record. The China section of the article went on at considerable length, but these were the beginning and ending parts:
By the time Obama made his state visit to Shanghai and Beijing, in November 2009, the press in both countries and the rest of the world was primed to present his usual low-key demeanor as servility. The Washington Post and The New York Times contrasted Obama's supposed hat-in-hand manner with the bravado of Bill Clinton, who had mentioned the Tiananmen Square protests while standing next to President Jiang Zemin.
Yet even as Obama was politely listening to lectures about China's new superiority, members of his administration were executing an elaborate pincer movement to reestablish American influence, real and perceived, among the growing economies of Asia....
Two years after Obama's "humiliating" visit to Shanghai and Beijing, U.S. relations with China were a mix of cooperation and tension, as they had been through the post-Nixon years. But American relations with most other nations in the region were better than since before the Iraq War. In a visit to Australia late in 2011, Obama startled the Chinese leadership but won compliments elsewhere with the announcement of a new permanent U.S. Marine presence in Darwin, on Australia's northern coast.
The strategy was Sun Tzu-like in its patient pursuit of an objective: reestablishing American hard and soft power while presenting a smiling "We welcome your rise!" face to the Chinese. "It was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see," Walter Russell Mead, of Bard College, often a critic of the administration, wrote about the announcement of the Australian base. "In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be."
Why do I bring this up? Because we've recently had another similar example, in the influential initial coverage of American "handling" of the Chen Guangcheng case.