As US President Barack Obama boards Air Force One on Sunday for the long trip to China, you might be thinking he’ll be dreading it.
I’m not talking about the flying part, he’s got a pretty cool plane with no worries about leg room. People could be thinking he just doesn’t want to talk with his counterparts about the recent election, where his party took a beating.
The conversation could go something like this:
World Leader A: “Man, that was rough, your people hate you.”
Obama: “Nah, no worries, this isn’t about me – it’s Washington they hate.:
That is the line he is using in Washington. They may not believe it any more than the political pundits here. Still, it allows him to wash over the results and move on.
There are many reports that overseas leaders now think he’s weak, a lame duck. And they could be right. But that applies to domestic policy, not foreign.
When it comes to the recent drubbing by Republicans, if anything, you could argue that it makes Obama stronger on foreign policy.
For instance, it was his own party that refused to give him fast track authority to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, aimed at opening up some of the world’s fastest growing markets to US workers, businesses and farmers.
The Republicans have said they are all for the trade deal. Fast track authority would give the president much more clout to negotiate. It basically means that he can make the deal and Congress can say yes or no – but not make any changes.
On other matters of foreign policy, there are some who believe he will less likely use force or be more aggressive now that he has been politically weakened at home.
Those people don’t understand the Republican Party. They have historically been more aggressive, more likely to press the president to use force on matters of national security.
Pivot to Asia
Still, as the president heads to Asia and Australia, he is likely looking a little bit weaker in the eyes of some of his counterparts. But it probably won’t change his agenda even a little bit.
The goal, move the TPP agreement along. But White House advisers said they don’t expect to announce an agreement while he is there.
He also wants to talk to his Chinese counterpart about climate change.
In Myanmar, Obama will want to shore up that country’s move to reconciliation. That is by all accounts stalled right now, and that matters to this president, who is now looking for a legacy.
His Australia visit is all about the G20, and he’ll give a speech heralding his “pivot” plan. He is expected to say what he has done for his entire time in office, that the US is a Pacific power and is tilting its focus in that direction.
One thing he probably won’t bring up is what that actually looks like.
Experts tell me the US military hasn’t changed its posture by much, mostly because of budget cuts. The trade deficit with Asia is actually considerably bigger then when the president took office.
He might know that even if he won’t say it, but he will try to change that and he thinks the best way to do that is getting the TPP done.
Ironically, he has his best chance to do that now with his party out of power in Congress. He’s a president in his last two years, looking for a legacy and he’ll be trying to find it in Asia.