It is somehow fitting that President Obama had to go to China to get a lesson in the yin and yang of governing and politics. Heading into the third and final leg of his 24,000-mile, three-country, two-continent diplomatic journey, the president this week has seen up close the duality so prized by Taoists in the up-and-down, good-and-bad of his policy pronouncements and interactions with other world leaders.
Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping held what were widely considered good and productive talks in Beijing, resulting in a potentially historic agreement on curbing carbon emissions as well as a critical accord on military maneuvers. But the warmth of those agreements was balanced by the frostiness of the two presidents' concluding press conference, where Xi lectured Obama—and the White House press corps—while doing little to hide his anger. The White House had pushed hard for Xi to take questions. But they couldn't have enjoyed the answers.
Nor did the White House have much time to revel in the climate agreement that had been so elusive but, for the first time, got the world's biggest polluter to agree to limit its emissions. Obama hailed it as "a major milestone in the U.S.-China relationship," contending that "it shows what's possible when we work together on an urgent global challenge." But to Republicans back home, it simply shows what happens when they let the president make deals with foreign leaders. House Speaker John Boehner called it "the latest example of the president's crusade against affordable, reliable energy" and said it was "yet another sign that the president intends to double down on his job-crushing policies."
The view wasn't much better from the other side of the issue—Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica blasted the deal as "miserably short" of what is needed. Conceding only that it "creates important political momentum" in the fight against emissions, he said it "falls significantly short of the aggressive reductions needed to prevent climate disruption."
A tug from both sides was also in evidence on trade. The president was able to announce a long-awaited deal with China to eliminate tariffs on high-tech products as part of the global Information Technology Agreement, which includes 70 countries. How the deal will be implemented and how much it will boost global gross domestic product are yet to be determined. But it was clearly a plus for the president. Then there was the minus—his inability so far to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free-trade agreement that has been among his highest international economic priorities. It has stalled on Japanese stubbornness on protecting its agricultural products as well as on Obama's failure to get Congress to give him the needed negotiating authority through trade-promotion authority, otherwise known as Fast Track.
The White House still retains hope for progress during the final leg of the current trip, when the president and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet again on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. But the Japanese are reluctant to make any concessions until they know Obama has TPA. Again, though, there is a tug of war. The president's progressive supporters are dead-set against TPA while the business community this week announced a push to get it through Congress.
Beyond the policy give-and-take at the summits in China and Myanmar, there has also been the up-and-down of the president's personal interactions. It started with his sessions with President Xi. He discovered the duality of Xi's leadership, according to Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Xi Jinping as leader has been less accommodating and tougher than expected," said Green. "The saying in Beijing one hears now is that he talks like Deng and acts like Mao," a reference to reformer Deng Xiaoping and hardliner Mao Zedong. He said "a heightened level of tension is the new normal" in U.S.-Chinese relations, something Obama discovered firsthand.
When he wasn't being lectured by Xi, he was frostily ignoring—and being ignored by—Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders met briefly on the edges of the APEC summit in Beijing, giving Obama the opportunity to once again stress to Putin the Western opposition to his aggressive moves in Ukraine. No one knows what Putin said to Obama. But NATO monitors left no doubt of the Kremlin leader's response on the ground in embattled Ukraine—he dispatched more troops and tanks across the border in possible preparation for winter combat.
Obama also found himself in the glare of the international spotlight—and not in the favorable way he was soon after his 2009 inauguration, when he was treated as a global rock star. Now, there is good and bad to the spotlight on him. There is still some rock star there. But, this time, many were watching more for the lame duck and how he would respond to the drubbing his party took in this month's midterm elections. The Chinese press was snickering even before he arrived and their tone did not improve when the U.S. president was seen on Chinese television chewing gum—presumably his regular Nicorette—when he greeted Xi. He was dismissed by one Chinese observer as an "idler" with bad manners.
The tug continued in Myanmar when he arrived for the ASEAN and East Asia summits. His mere presence there—as was the case for his historic visit two years ago—gives a democratic stamp of approval to the government. But he is under enormous pressure to make clear to that government that it must do more and must do it faster to get the stalled reform process going again.
In the final leg of his trip, Obama can only hope that when he gets to Australia things look up for him Down Under.