BALI, Indonesia — An assertive President Barack Obama got much of what he wanted during his Asia-Pacific trip because the results didn’t depend on negotiating with the world.
He mostly just announced them.
Obama expanded the U.S. military presence in southeast Asia, sent tough signals to China in its backyard, ordered his top diplomat on a breakthrough mission to Myanmar and presided over the jobs-creating sale of Boeing planes to an Indonesian airline company.
It was a trip on his terms, unlike the dynamic he has with the U.S. Congress.
Obama might as well have borrowed his mantra of “We Can’t Wait” – a slogan from his re-election campaign – and applied it to his foreign agenda.
Still, Obama returns home without any firm commitments from Russia or China over stiffer penalties against Iran over its disputed nuclear program. Obama insisted that the three countries were unified on preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and he said in general terms that they would figure out the next steps together.
The president has few lasting images to show from the nine-day trip, which was ending Sunday with his return to the White House. One was the scene aboard a docked aircraft carrier in San Diego, where Obama saluted veterans and watched a college basketball game.
But much of his time was spent in summit ballrooms, without defining moments of diplomacy or much engagement with local citizens.
Far from Washington, Obama had few domestic distractions on his nine-day trip. That allowed him to stay on his message of trade, security and human rights.
The region was eager for America’s presence and influence, often as a counter to China’s might. So Obama held more sway and ran into less visible pushback, except for bristling from the Chinese. The White House was careful not to promise too much from this trip all along, making its goals all that much more possible to achieve.
This was not, for example, the Middle East, where Obama’s many attempts to pull the Israelis and Palestinians back together have left him little to show.
It did not hurt that Obama had home-field advantage for about half the time he was away.
The United States hosted the yearly Asia-Pacific economic forum for the first in about 20 years. For the site, Obama chose Hawaii, the American foothold in the Pacific and his birthplace.
When he made time to squeeze in a political fundraiser outside Honolulu, Obama saw longtime friends and acknowledged the bias for “the hometown kid.”
In Hawaii and across Australia and Indonesia, the goal was to show a deep U.S. commitment to the fastest growing part of the world. It is a message with major implications. For example, which region may suffer from coming U.S. defense cuts (not Asia) and how the Obama administration sees a way out of economic stagnation (definitely Asia).
Getting the relevance of that message through to voters at home was another matter.
Obama had stretches without much news and competed for media coverage with the Penn State child sex abuse scandal and the politics of the 2012 election.
To the degree Americans saw Obama on the world stage, he looked comfortable and confident. That was surely a picture the White House enjoyed. Compare that with Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s “oops” debate moment when he forgot that the Energy Department was one of the agencies he wanted to eliminate or Herman Cain’s bungling of a basic question about Libya in a videotaped interview.
Right before this trip came Obama’s visit to France for a meeting of the world’s major economies. There, Europe was the driver and Obama seemed secondary.
Not the next trip.
In Hawaii, Obama announced at least a framework of a deal for a new Pacific trade zone with eight other countries. Then Japan, Canada and Mexico showed interest.
Asked often about China, he offered familiar assurances that the U.S. wants to China to grow without containment, but he did so while admonishing the rising Asian giant.
Obama sent a message to China about its military buildup, following earlier signals from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. When Obama said the United States is a Pacific power, China was listening. That was especially true when Obama ordered Marines to start setting up a hub of operation in Australia.
As the president put it: “We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace.”
That declaration came after he had already challenged China to show more maturity in its economic relations with other nations.
“That requires them to take responsibility, to understand that their role is different now than it might have been 20 years ago or 30 years ago, where if they were breaking some rules, it didn’t really matter, it did not have a significant impact,” Obama said. “Now they’ve grown up, and so they’re going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way.”
By the final stretch in Indonesia, where Obama joined East Asian leaders to talk about matters of disaster responses and security on the open sea, he had one more move to make.
He announced that he was sending Clinton to Myanmar to take stock of a fledgling reform movement after years of brutal repression. The U.S. had not made such an overture to Myanmar, also known as Burma, in decades, and Obama didn’t need any legislative approval to seize what he called an historic opportunity.
“Millions of people may get the chance to live with a greater measure of freedom, prosperity, and dignity. And that possibility is too important to ignore,” he said.
In other words, he won’t wait.