Despite catching flak from political observers on the timing, U.S. President Obama began a 10-day tour of Asia this weekend meant to strengthen ties and expand markets for U.S. exports.
The trip begins just days after the Democratic Party took a shellacking in the midterm elections, both nationally and in state-level races. Republicans swept into the majority in the House of Representatives and carved into Democratic numbers in the Senate.
Obama left for India Friday, the first leg of his four-country journey that also includes a Group of 20 summit, an Asia-Pacific Economic Council conference, bilateral meetings with at least six leaders, as well as major speeches, public appearances and news conferences. Some analysts question the wisdom about leaving the country so soon after the election. (President Clinton also went on a diplomatic mission after Democrats took a drubbing in 1994.)
In remarks after a Cabinet meeting Thursday, Obama said the primary purpose his trip "is 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."
He also said he hoped there would be some "specific announcements that show the connection between what we're doing overseas and what happens here at home when it comes to job growth and economic growth."
The bottom line, though, is countries are not standing still, he said.
"They are serious about competing. They are serious about competing with us not just on manufacturing but on services," he said. "They're competing with us when it comes to educational attainment, when it comes to scientific discovery."
Obama has called the U.S.-India relationship a "defining partnership of the 21st century," Bill Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said during a background briefing on the trip.
"The simple truth is that India's rise and its strength and progress on the global stage is deeply in the strategic interest of the United States," Burns said. "We're the world's two largest democracies. We're both big, diverse, tolerant societies. We're two of the world's largest economies. We both have an increasing stake in global stability and prosperity, especially across Asia and the Pacific."
A recent trip to India found the mood positive, Burns said, adding there was "an air of anticipation, a lot of interest in how we can work together to translate all the progress of recent years into sort of further tangible benefits that both Indians and Americans can see."
Burns, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and others avoided direct discussion on the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to India in the face of a dismal unemployment levels at home. The rate remains at 9.6 percent in October -- the third consecutive month the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent and 15th consecutive reporting period the rate was 9.5 percent or higher. That is the longest such stretch since record keeping on the statistic began in 1948.
"I would simply say that a key part of the message is going to be that we want to make sure (there are) opportunities for U.S. jobs, U.S. exports," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
After his three-day visit to India, Obama travels to Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood, to meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and attend a state dinner. Obama had planned to visit Indonesia earlier this year, but circumstances forced the plans to be canceled.
The two-day visit also will include a news conference with Yudhoyono, a visit to the Istiqlal Mosque and a speech at an outdoor venue, Rhodes said.
"(In) that speech, he'll have a chance to talk about the partnership that we're building with Indonesia but also to talk about some of the themes of democracy and development and our outreach to Muslim communities around the world, while also speaking of Indonesia's pluralism and tolerance as well," Rhodes said.
Jeff Bader, senior director for Asian affairs of the National Security Council, said Obama would launch a presidential-level, comprehensive partnership between the United States and Indonesia, "which is a way to try to deepen and broaden the relationship on political security issues, economic issues and people-to-people issues."
Obama will arrive in South Korea Nov. 10 and will begin his official visit on Veterans Day by speaking to U.S. troops at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, Rhodes said. In addition, Nov. 11 also is the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.
Before the G20 summit begins, Obama will attend a bilateral meeting and news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak then have a bilateral meeting -- his seventh -- with President Hu Jintao of China, Rhodes said.
"In terms of topics, I think that most likely -- we will undoubtedly talk about economic issues, how we continue to work together to assure the global economy recovers on a balanced and sustainable basis; trade issues," Rhodes said.
"There's really not an area of attention on the international stage that's gotten the kind of focus that we've applied to our efforts to the G20 to avert an economic catastrophe and to promote balance in global growth," Rhodes said. "So we see the G20 as fundamental not just to our international economic agenda but to our ability to have a lasting recovery at home, because fostering balance, global growth is essential to fostering growth here in the American economy."
Because Obama's export agenda is fundamental to the domestic job agenda, "In Seoul and in Japan he'll have the opportunity to discuss how we're trying to pursue greater U.S. exports in Asian markets," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said he expected the issue of climate change would be brought up during the G20 meetings, saying he thought "there's a range of actions we can take to strengthen our investments in clean energy at home, to reduce our dependence on oil and to ... also re-engage on the international stage."
Bader said he expected Obama's speech in South Korea would, among other things, be a message to North Korea about the U.S.-South Korea commitment to the strength of the six-party talks on Pyongyang's ending its nuclear weapons program.
Before it can have normalized relations with the international community, Bader said, "North Korea needs to address with sincerity and with demonstrable behavior the denuclearization issue."
From South Korea, Obama heads to Yokohama Japan, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Council summit and a chief executive officer business meeting attached to it, and a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Rhodes said. In addition, bilateral meetings are scheduled with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Southeast Asia is considered an important region, Rhodes said.
"(Our) reason for engaging is that we believe it's fundamentally in our interest to be a key player in Southeast Asia," Rhodes said. "These are very dynamic, growing markets from Indonesia to Vietnam to Thailand, and therefore we want to have deeper economic cooperation with them," he said.
Speaking of security issues, Rhodes said the region also has terrorism issues, such as al-Qaida-affiliated organizations in Indonesia and other areas.
"So our counter-terrorism cooperation in Southeast Asia is directly relevant to our security back here," Rhodes said.
When examining trends in the 21st century, "if you look at where the economic growth is taking place, it is hugely oriented towards Asia," Rhodes said. "So if you look at the United States economy and where we're going to have to export our goods and create jobs and deepen our partnerships, it's very much in Asia."
Asia is at the center of the U.S. foreign policy, Rhodes said, because "it's fundamental to the economic prosperity of individual Americans, because of the need to balance global growth through our exports there and it's fundamental to our security in terms of being the basis of our non-proliferation regime and our efforts against terrorism."