“They still remember two years ago when we had the budget showdown and he couldn’t go. That really was a low point in the engagement in Asia,” said Shihoko Goto, a senior Northeast Asia analyst at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program. “It showed the United States as unable to follow through on its commitment. Now, by showing up, he is showing that he really means what he says.”
Matthew P. Goodman, who was in charge of planning for these Asian summits when he was on the National Security Council staff in Obama’s first term, said the president is also strengthened by the robust growth of the American economy. “The president is heading out on this whirlwind trip in a very strong position,” he said. “The U.S. is the only country, really, in the G-20 that is on a positive growth trajectory.”
Ernest Z. Bower, who holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the president is in surprisingly good shape. “If you had asked me what the president needed to do before he traveled to Asia, I would have said get the TPP done, notify Congress, and do the (Freedom of Navigation) ops in the South China Sea. They’ve done it,” he said, observing, “The White House is really feeling its oats.”
At the White House, they are just relieved to be able to plan Obama’s travels without government shutdowns and electoral defeats. “I’m mindful of the Woody Allen maxim of how much of life is showing up,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy National security adviser. “And in Asia, it really matters to attend these summits at the level of the leader.” He added, “We want the United States to be at the table at the Asia-Pacific in shaping the future of the region and signaling that we’re going to be present.” To laughs, he told reporters at the White House, “When we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.”
On Wednesday, the president will meet with the leaders of the 11 other countries who signed the TPP, the first time they have been together since the conclusion of the negotiations. Obama may face some questions there about the outlook for the pact in the U.S. Congress. But, with all the leaders facing their own ratification procedures, the session will be more celebration than anything else.
Even with his stronger hand, Obama may face questions from the other leaders about his successor, especially with Asia policy and tough talk about China coming up so often in the Republican candidates’ debates. “I think they’re going to be very curious about the oddities in this election cycle,” said Green, who said he is finding many senior political leaders in Asia raising the campaign to “nervously ask for reassurance that everything’s going to be OK.”