KAPOLEI, Hawaii — President Barack Obama on Sunday tied the hopes of a faster American economic recovery to the booming Pacific Rim region, saying “we’re not going to be able to put our folks back to work” unless the Asia-Pacific region is successful as an engine for the world.
“We consider it a top priority,” Obama said of the region where his administration is pouring in time and political capital to expand exports and business ties.
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The president spoke as he dove into a day of summit diplomacy, proudly using his home state of Hawaii as the American foothold to the Pacific. He gathered with leaders of 20 other nations of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, whose nations span from Chile to China and account for roughly half the world’s trade and economic output.
In the midst of a hard re-election bid, Obama kept his message on jobs, even as he privately lobbied for help on containing the Iranian nuclear threat.
He was to cap the summit with a solo news conference in which topics on and off his scripted agenda were likely to emerge.
Born in Hawaii, Obama reveled in having the world stage on his home turf, while back east the Republicans seeking to oust him from the White House assailed his foreign policy record.
Obama used his moment to signal to business executives and Asian leaders that the United States has shifted from a post-9/11 war focus to re-engagement all across the Pacific.
“We represent close to 3 billion people, from different continents and cultures,” Obama told his APEC partners on Saturday, ahead of some luau entertainment. “Our citizens have sent us here with a common task: to bring our economies closer together, to cooperate, to create jobs and prosperity that our people deserve so that they can provide for their families.”
The president is on a 9-day venture away from Washington’s daily political gridlock. He will visit Australia and Indonesia before returning to the White House on Nov. 20.
Obama met Sunday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after a joint meeting of those two leaders and Mexican President Felipe Calderon had to be canceled because of a helicopter crash that killed Mexico’s top cabinet secretary. Handlers for Obama and Harper tried to make the most of the moment for the cameras, staging not one but two photo ops of Obama and Harper, first laughing while seated at a patio table, then strolling with their suit coats slung over their shoulders.
On Saturday, largely a day of sideline meetings here, Obama prodded the skeptical leaders of Russia and China for support in dialing back Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but without winning endorsement from either man. Neither Russian President Dmitry Medvedev nor Chinese President Hu Jintao publicly echoed Obama’s push for solidarity over Iran.
Obama did announce the broad outlines of an agreement to create a transpacific trade zone encompassing the United States and eight other nations before going into meetings with Hu and Medvedev where he raised a new report from the U.N. atomic agency. The report asserted in the strongest terms to date that Iran is conducting secret work to develop nuclear arms.
Russia and China remain a roadblock to the United States in its push to tighten international sanctions on Iran. Both are veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council and have shown no sign the new report will change their stand.
Alongside Medvedev, Obama said the two “reaffirmed our intention to work to shape a common response” on Iran.
Shortly after, Obama joined Hu, in a run of back-to-back diplomacy with the heads of two countries that have complicated and at times divisive relations with the United States, occasional partners in joint international endeavors, but also frequent rivals or adversaries on more difficult issues, especially those with strategic implications.
Obama said that he and the Chinese leader want to ensure that Iran abides by “international rules and norms.”
Obama’s comments were broad enough to portray a united front without yielding any clear indication of progress.
Medvedev, for his part, was largely silent on Iran during his remarks, merely acknowledging that the subject was discussed. Hu did not mention Iran at all.
White House aides insisted later that Russia and China remain unified with the United States and other allies in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and that Obama, Hu and Medvedev had agreed to work on the next steps. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the new allegations about Iran’s programs demand an international response.
“I think the Russians and the Chinese understand that,” he said. “We’re going to be working with them to formulate that response.”
As the president held forth on the world stage, Republicans vying to compete against Obama for the presidency unleashed withering criticism in a debate in South Carolina. It was a rare moment in which foreign policy garnered attention in a campaign dominated by the flagging U.S. economy.
“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon,” said Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.
Iran has insisted its nuclear work is in the peaceful pursuit of energy and research, not weaponry.
On the Pacific trade pact, Obama said details must still be worked out, but said the goal was to complete the deal by next year.
The eight countries joining the U.S. in the zone would be Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Obama also spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda about Japan’s interest in joining the trade bloc.