Obama's Asia Trip Ends With Journey To The West
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
President Barack Obama's in the Japanese port city of Yokohama today, the final stop in his extended Asia tour before returning to Washington, D.C. tomorrow. Along the way, the president has danced with schoolchildren in India, stubbed a few toes at a summit meeting in South Korea, and gazed in wonder at the tall buildings that have sprung up in Indonesia, where he lived as a young boy.
Mr. Obama told a group of business leaders in Japan today the United States will continue to play a leading role in the Pacific.
President BARACK OBAMA: In the 21st century, the security and prosperity of the American people is linked inextricably to the security and prosperity of Asia. That's why this was not my first trip here and why it will not be my last.
NPR's Scott Horsley has been traveling with the president and joins us now. Scott, thanks for being with us.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you.
SIMON: And when the president returns, he does depart with some unfinished business, doesn't he?
HORSLEY: Yeah. One big disappointment is that the president is not coming home with a Korean free trade agreement. This trip, as much as anything, has been a trade mission for Mr. Obama. He's very anxious to boost U.S. exports to Asia. He did announce some big sales contracts early on while he was in India, but a Korean free trade deal would have been the big prize.
U.S. negotiators spent several days trying to pry open the Korean market for American cars and beef exports. But the president said they just couldn't make a deal in time for his meeting with his South Korean counterpart.
Mr. OBAMA: I've always said that I'm not interested in signing a trade agreement just for the sake of an announcement. I'm interested in trade agreements that increase jobs and exports for the United States and hopefully also increase opportunities for our trading partners.
HORSLEY: Now, the two sides have agreed to keep talking and the president says he hopes that he can finalize the deal in a matter of weeks.
SIMON: The president might have done a little better when he met with leaders of the G-20 countries, 'cause he came away with an agreement to address global trade imbalances. But it really does seem to be just an outline with a lot of the details to be filled in at a later date. Which raises the question: Did the president lose at least some leverage with his fellow leaders when his party lost so badly in the midterm elections?
HORSLEY: Well, it's reasonable to think there's at least some relationship between the president's political standing at home and his influence abroad. I could remember back to March when the president won a big domestic victory with the health care bill and then just a few days later reached the arms control deal with the Russians.
Here we have sort of the opposite situation. His party takes a shellacking in the midterms. Foreign leaders might be justified in saying, you know, can Mr. Obama even deliver on any agreement he might make here?
That said, the president insists he did not feel weakened at the international bargaining table. He reminded reporters it was no cakewalk getting the G-20 to go along with the U.S. position even when he was at the height of his popularity.
Mr. OBAMA: It wasn't any easier to talk about currency when I had just been elected and my poll numbers were at 65 percent than it is now. It was hard then and it's hard now. Because this involves the, you know, the interests of countries, and not all of these are going to be resolved easily.
HORSLEY: The other thing that's changed at the G-20 is that the worst of the economic crisis has passed. And you know, a crisis, like hanging, tends to concentrate the mind. The G-20 leaders may be a little bit less concentrated on agreements than they were a year ago.
SIMON: Many of the signature moments of the president's trip, Scott, have been in India. And, you know, Indians can be sensitive about what they've seen as a U.S. tilt toward Pakistan, our preoccupation with China, when they are, of course, the democracy. Did the president make some friends in India?
HORSLEY: He really did. It's interesting, the initial press coverage was pretty hostile, but over the course of three days in India, the president, and especially Mrs. Obama, won over a lot of hearts. The television was full of pictures of Michelle Obama dancing with schoolchildren. And, of course, Mr. Obama sealed the deal when he spoke to parliament and endorsed India's bid to join the U.N. Security Council on a permanent basis.
SIMON: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you.