For the president of the United States, getting out of town when you've just had your proverbial bottom handed to you is not necessarily a new thing. In 1994, facing historic losses in the House and Senate, Bill Clinton headed to Jakarta
to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. In 2006, on the heels of his self-proclaimed "thumpin
' " in the congressional elections, George W. Bush did the same, heading to Vietnam
for the APEC summit.
On Friday, President Obama -- fresh off a "shellacking
" at the polls on Tuesday -- will head to India, Indonesia, Korea and Japan. Along the way, he, too, will attend the APEC summit. (Are thumpin's and shellackings prerequisites for presidential attendance at the summit?)
But this year's post-election Asian swing is an elaborate and carefully calibrated effort, one aimed at demonstrating Obama's business acumen to an increasingly skeptical financial sector, reminding Americans of the threats they face from enemies both seen and unseen, and, ultimately, burnishing the president's credentials amid questions about his ability to lead the country through a time of crisis.
In a cabinet meeting on Thursday, the president announced the primary purpose of his trip to India -- at four days, the longest foreign stop of his tenure -- was to "take a bunch of U.S. companies and open up markets so that we can sell in Asia, in some of the fastest-growing markets in the world, and we can create jobs here in the United States of America."
Obama will travel to the region with an entourage of 200 CEOs -- a cortege of pro-business ambassadors unmatched in recent memory -- and attend a business round-table summit to discuss (and presumably announce) a range of U.S.-India economic partnerships. For a president who has made doubling U.S. exports by 2020
a top priority, greater access to the Indian consumer will be key: India's economy will soon overtake
Japan's to become the world's third-largest
in purchasing power.
India also represents a counterweight to China's looming economic powerhouse: China is positioned to take over as India's largest trading partner, surpassing the U.S
. And with increasingly frustrated
American efforts to persuade China to reevaluate its currency, India might play a pivotal role in persuading the Chinese to stop undervaluing their yuan (China has been accused
of manipulating its currency value to gain an unfair competitive advantage in international trade.).
Beyond India, the economy will play a prominent role throughout the rest of the president's itinerary. In Indonesia, Obama will make a push for deeper economic cooperation with emerging markets in Southeast Asia. In Korea for the G-20 summit, the president will work on securing a Free Trade Agreement
with the Korean government, currently stymied
over issues surrounding automobiles and agriculture. The U.S. wants South Korea to reduce its surplus in auto trade and open its market to American beef.
The president will make one final pro-business push in Japan, where he'll attend a CEO summit on the sidelines of the APEC summit. According to Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Obama will "discuss both the balanced growth agenda globally and our efforts to increase exports to Asia."
But in case the financial focus isn't enough to convince the public of Obama's leadership skills, he's making a concerted push to highlight issues of national security, reminding Americans of the increasingly unstable world in which they live and his success thus far at preventing another terrorist attack.
In India, Obama will commemorate the terrorist attacks in Mumbai by visiting the Taj hotel, where assassins attacked and killed civilians in November 2008. In his bilateral meetings with Prime Minster Manmohan Singh, the two will take up the issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan, forefronts of the war on terror.
In Indonesia, Obama will draw attention to the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the region, including Jemaah Islamiyah
, and highlight counterterrorism operations underway, reminding the public of the 9/11 attackers who passed through neighboring countries including Malaysia
. He'll address efforts to end Iran's nuclear weapons development: Indonesia has relations with Iran, and Obama is likely to press President Yudhoyono to take more action within the Organization of Islamic Countries, of which both countries are members.
Perhaps the president's highest profile effort to demonstrate leadership on national security concerns will occur when he gives a major speech in Jakarta addressing the Muslim world -- from the world's most populous Muslim country. According to Rhodes, Obama will cite "democracy and development and our outreach to Muslim communities around the world, while also speaking of Indonesia's pluralism and tolerance as well."
Underscoring the threat of traditional enemies, the specter of the North Korea will loom during the president's travels to South Korea. Obama will bring up the recent sinking of the South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan -- presumably by the North
-- and leader Kim Jong Il's rogue nuclear program and the Six-Party talks
aimed at convincing the North to abandon it.
With a week and a half to underscore that he's still commander in chief -- shellacking be damned -- Obama will still have his work cut out for him. For all the bilateral meetings in a region that the White House has deemed strategically important for the future of the U.S. economy and its national security, the president and his senior staff will still be overseas, thousands of miles from the energized and emboldened Republican leadership. Changing the terms of the debate from oceans away will require not only an extraordinarily compelling message, but an audience that isn't too distracted -- or dismayed -- to listen.