President Hu Jintao, right, President of the People’s Republic of China, addresses the U.S. APEC Business Coalition during a meeting at the Sheraton Waikiki, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 in Honolulu. (AP Photo/ Marco Garcia)
CORONADO, Calif. (AP) — President Barack Obama is jetting away from Washington’s political and budget battles just as crucial decisions and deadlines approach, focusing instead on Asia-Pacific nations and trying to persuade voters at home the distant region is essential to American jobs and security.
Obama departed Friday for summits in Hawaii and Indonesia and a visit to Australia in between.
For nine days, the president will be as many as 10,000 miles from home at a time when jobs, the frail economy and other domestic concerns matter most to the U.S. electorate. But Asia and the Pacific region are crucial to America’s future, the White House insists.
Obama was born in Hawaii, spent boyhood years in Indonesia and points to himself as America’s first Pacific president, so his worldview is shaped deeply by Asia. His administration is showering attention on the region as a driver of global politics, a prized buyer of American products and a central player in protecting world peace.
“If you want America to be a world leader in this century, that leadership is going to have to include the Asia-Pacific,” said Ben Rhodes, a de puty national security adviser.
Such a focus is essential to American interests, analysts say, but still a test for a president who is seeking to govern and run for re-election at once.
The White House hopes the world will see Obama’s trip as a pivot point in American policy, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it. The war in Iraq will be over by year’s end, the war in Afghanistan is winding down and Obama is trying to expand trade, security alliances and cultural ties with traditional allies and emerging powers across Asia.
The subtext of the trip agenda is Obama’s intention to keep the United States as a viable counterweight to a rising China, particularly in the eyes of other leaders in the region.
The element Obama aides don’t mention is the potential political cost of having the president out of the country, half a world away, as other debates rage back home.
The economy is king, from the presidential campaign to Obama’s jobs fights to a legislative supercommittee charged with finding more than $1 trillion in cuts by a Nov. 23 deadline. Republicans and Democrats seem far apart, and there is growing pessimism they will succeed.
“I can see the domestic political advisers saying, ‘Ten days in the Pacific while people are out of work in the U.S. — Mr. President, you ought to cut this one short,'” said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former national security aide to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
White House officials say there are no plans to do that. A suddenly shortened trip would be seen as a slap to Asian allies, and the Australian leg has already been postponed twice because of higher-ranking domestic concerns for Obama.
En route to Hawaii, Obama stopped in Coronado, Calif., to attend a Veterans Day basketball game between Michigan State and No. 1 North Carolina on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson. That’s the aircraft carrier that took Osama bin Laden’s body to a burial at sea after American commandos killed the al-Qaida leader in Pakistan.
Over the weekend, the president will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, forum in Honolulu, to promote trade and jobs.
The big push for Obama will be establishing a Pacific-wide free trade zone that is now being negotiated by the United States and eight smaller economies.
The goal is for the trade zone to eventually cover a region accounting for more than half of global output. Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, said Friday that his country would participate in talks about joining the free trade zone, and there are hopes that China and others will, too. The expectations at the Obama-hosted summit are not for a deal but perhaps the announcement of a broad framework and more discussions.
As usual, the more intense diplomatic action will happen on the sidelines. Obama will hold private meetings with the leaders of Japan, Russia and China.
Altogether, Obama will spend four nights in Hawaii and is expected to have a light schedule on Monday — only a fundraiser, a reminder of the domestic politics that follow him.
In Australia, Obama will deliver a speech to Parliament in Canberra.
He is also expected to announce a deeper U.S. military footprint in the country during a stop in Darwin, in the northern reaches of Australia. The defense agreement is likely to include positioning of U.S. equipment in Australia, increasing access to bases and conducting more joint exercises and training.
More broadly, Obama will use the trip to try to reassure allies that the United States will not slash its security presence across the Asia-Pacific despite austerity measures at home.
Yet the threat of defense cuts is rattling Obama’s own administration. If the deficit-cutting supercommittee cannot agree on a plan that wins approval from Congress, a new law calls for deep cuts across the government to kick in automatically starting in 2013, including more than $500 billion for the military.
The president caps his trip in Indonesia, where he spent four years as a boy.
Obama delivered a speech in the capital, Jakarta, last year in which he declared that “Indonesia is a part of me.” This time he will be the first U.S. president to take part in the East Asia Summit, in Bali, known as a tropical paradise for tourism. The U.S. has put its stamp on the summit agenda in the area of security, including halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The trip amounts to Obama’s most extensive travel of the year.
He leaves as his approval ratings have been mired in the mid- to low-40 percent range in many recent polls, including a 46 percent approval number in the latest Associated Press-GfK poll from mid-October. His overall rating outpaces his performance on the economy. On matters of foreign affairs, Obama fares far better, garnering the approval of about 6 in 10 adults.
Obama is expected to underscore the relevance of the trip to Americans by the day. He will be back in Washington on Nov. 20.
“This isn’t a trip to the far-flung corners of Asia,” said Daniel Russel, Obama’s senior director for Asian affairs. “This is a trip to the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. is very much an Asia-Pacific nation. We’re a resident power.”