News / Asia

Domestic Politics to Follow Obama on Asia Trip

One question not asked of President Obama in his Wednesday news conference about the U.S midterm congressional elections, was the potential effect of the outcome on his foreign policy agenda. Like former Democratic president Bill Clinton who traveled overseas shortly after the Democrats suffered midterm elections losses, questions about Mr. Obama's reduced political power at home will certainly follow him through a 10-day Asian trip beginning at the end of the week.

In 1994, shortly after Democrats suffered a major defeat at the hands of Republicans in that year's midterm elections, former President Bill Clinton traveled to Indonesia to attend the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit.

During that visit to Jakarta, Clinton faced questions from a persistent traveling White House press corps about Democrat's loss of control in Congress to Republicans.

Fast forward to November 2010. President Obama will also attend an APEC summit, this year in Yokohama, Japan, along with the first G-20 summit to be hosted by South Korea.

Before Tuesday's midterm elections, which handed control of the House of Representatives to Republicans, White House officials acknowledged that the U.S. political situation would likely be a key topic, at minimum for the media, during Mr. Obama's upcoming trip.  

The president's first stops, in India and Indonesia, will focus on bilateral economic, trade, and security/strategic relations, and in Jakarta, on extending the outreach to the Muslim world he began with a speech in Cairo last year.

Mr. Obama will have to conduct important bilateral and global business, including bilateral meetings with China's President Hu Jintao and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, against the background of diminished political power at home.

The only mention of foreign countries during the president's news conference came as he answered a reporter's question about finding common ground with Republicans on spending priorities, saying he would not favor cutting into "core investments" that will ensure U.S. global competitiveness.

"We should be able to agree now that it makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us, and Singapore having better airports than us, and we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth.  That used to be us.  They are making investments, because they know those investments will pay off over the long term,' Mr. Obama said.

This week, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs, Mike Froman, was asked if the president would have to devote time to reassuring key trading partners jittery about U.S. political changes.

Froman said U.S. domestic politics would be a subject during the president's trip because other countries are "naturally interested" in what goes on in the United States. Regardless of the U.S. election results, Froman said Mr. Obama will focus on expanding U.S. export opportunities and creating jobs for Americans.

One important unfinished piece of business for the president and Congress is completion of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea. Froman said discussions were continuing aimed at achieving a satisfactory result by the time President Obama arrives in South Korea.

Asked about the impact of the U.S. elections on the image of the United States abroad, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called them a powerful example of the American people exercising their constitutional responsibilities and living up to the framework of government by the people.

Saying the president may be devoting some time during his Asia travels to what he will face back in Washington when he returns, Gibbs said Mr. Obama will be fully prepared to answer questions about the U.S. midterm elections at each stop of his journey.

One reality President Obama and White House officials likely have been considering for some time before the midterm elections is the impact on foreign policy objectives where the U.S. Congress is concerned.

The administration will have to work with Congress on final approval of the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, on China currency legislation that stalled in the U.S. Senate.

The president will also be dealing with the likely new Republican chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives.  

Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a hard liner when it comes to issues with Cuba,  such as relaxation of the U.S. travel ban, and on Iran, and is among lawmakers in Congress who have voiced concern about the importance of safeguards being included in a $60 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

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