STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And let's return to those words we heard earlier from President Bush.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: So America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists.
INSKEEP: This is one of the high-profile moments of the president's final months in office, and we're going to talk about those closing months with Ron Elving. He's NPR's senior Washington editor. Ron, good morning.
RON ELVING: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Always good when you join us early in the morning. Are gestures like that speech a big part of what the president wants to do in his closing months?
ELVING: Steve, I think the priority here appears to be to set aright in the president's own mind the relationship with China. And the human rights problem is a part of that, but it's only an element in the mix. And the president's words today surely represented American sentiment and the policy of our country. But they're also going to be superseded somewhat by the fact that he's flying on to Beijing where he will not be so critical of China, and where his presence is going to reinforce the entire atmosphere around these Olympics and the repressive regime that's putting them on.
INSKEEP: Isn't this the basic contradiction that a lot of American presidents have faced? You complained about China on your way into office, maybe complain on your way out, and in between you do a lot of business with China.
ELVING: Yes. I mean, this is a reminder that our business with China is increasingly done on their terms. They're the ones who have the trade surplus; we're the ones with the corresponding deficit. They're the creditor holding half a trillion in our U.S. debt, and we're the debtor nation that needs the loan.
INSKEEP: Well, now, it's not unusual I guess for a president to spend a good part of his year in office overseas. Is this president any different?
ELVING: It's not unusual. Aging presidencies are a little bit like prophets, more likely to be honored overseas than at home. And that's especially true if you've got a president who doesn't have very much of a working relationship with Congress and isn't doing particularly well in the polls. But our president is different, too, because as he travels overseas, I think the foreign leaders are aware of what his standing is here and how soon his administration is going to be out of office.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that he doesn't have any more honor overseas than he would at home?
ELVING: I don't think it quite goes that far, because overseas, people still see things that they can get from the United States government. And they still see this as an opportunity to build a new and stronger relationship with the United States, even if it is with a lame duck administration.
INSKEEP: Well, Ron Elving, as a longtime observer of Washington, knowing everything that you do, seeing the presidencies that you've seen, how much can this president realistically accomplish, given that he is still president, but only for a few more months?
ELVING: You know, I don't think that the president sees his travels overseas in a negative light, or in a weak light. I think he sees himself as finishing his presidency as a kind of victory lap, really, because he has served the principles that he believes in, a strong role for the United States in the world, strong role for the presidency within the United States. And he sees that as his legacy, and he see that as what he is achieving in these last months by broadcasting that to the world in the fashion that he's doing.
INSKEEP: So he's not sitting there thinking, oh, I need to finally get something done here in the last few months. He feels that he's done what he wants to do and he's going to continue that to the end.
ELVING: Yes, and in the second term, he's achieved a certain amount in Asia. You know, he's been there nine times, four times to China. He's met with Chinese presidents 14 times, more than any United States president. And as he said today in Bangkok, we now have more trade crossing the Pacific than we have the Atlantic. So I think they're trying to shift a little bit of the focus to that part of the world, perhaps away from some of the other parts of the world that have been so much more of a problem. And they're trying to set up a certain amount of achievement and monument for the presidency - its foreign policy, at least - in that area.
INSKEEP: Ron, thanks very much.
ELVING: My pleasure, Steve.
INSKEEP: Ron Elving is NPR's senior editor. He's talking with us about the final months of the Bush administration. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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