Mr. President, you’ve just suffered the biggest midterm defeat in decades . . . what will you do now? Answer: I’m going to Asia for ten days!
Politically, it is hard to know whether the White House is dreading the ten days of punishing commentary about “being out of touch” they will suffer as the president leaves for Asia on November 5, or whether they are glad to be escaping Washington to talk about something more pleasant for them than dealing with a Republican-controlled House . . . like, say, dealing with North Korea. Either way, the president needs to head to the region with eyes wide open about how this election result will shape perceptions of his presidency and the United States abroad. November 2 did not fundamentally change the enormous power of the presidency to drive foreign policy—and in some areas like trade it may have opened new foreign-policy opportunities. But there are also real pitfalls out there.
Problem number one will be the U.S. press. A quick Google search of “Obama leaves for Asia” turns up a treasure trove of blog postings and editorials about “King Obama” heading off to Asia with “40 aircraft” as if the American people had not just rebuked his policies, etc., etc. An itinerary skillfully designed to demonstrate U.S. interest in strategic relations with India could easily backfire at home as the president is shown meeting with Indian citizens over three days in ways that could be spun to suggest he cares more about them than the American worker. Solution? The president should use every meeting and every press availability to demonstrate with specific examples how the economic success of India and the rest of Asia can create U.S. exports and partners for the American people to continue building their own prosperity.
Problem number two will be U.S. friends and allies. In Japan, Korea and India the media commentary is full of warnings that the United States might become more inward looking in the wake of the ruling party’s electoral defeat. That is probably a bad reading of history, if one considers the way both Truman and Clinton increased engagement with Asia after suffering midterm defeats. But if you were Japan or Korea and growing increasingly dependent on U.S. power as China flexes its muscle, you would worry too. Solution? The president should take concrete steps to demonstrate that U.S. commitment to engaging Asia is strong, particularly on trade. The president has already told President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea that he wants to introduce the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) to the Congress, but the administration has done no heavy lifting on the Hill (understandable politically since they did not want to distract labor unions from turning out the vote on November 2). The President should now put passing free-trade agreements at the top of his agenda with presumed Speaker John Boehner. It is an area where the White House will get a better response from Republicans than they ever got from Democrats. In fact, the White House should reach out to Boehner and the leadership to demonstrate they are serious about trade before leaving on the trip.
Problem number three will be U.S. adversaries. Regimes like Burma and North Korea will likely see the midterms as a zero-sum loss for the administration and therefore a win for them. After the Republican sweep in the 1994 midterm elections, the North Korean negotiators came in to the next round of nuclear talks with Ambassador Robert Gallucci and declared themselves ready to accept the American compromise now that the administration was weak and desperate. Solution? The president should craft a declaratory policy with U.S. allies that demonstrates no change in the U.S. resolve to keep pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons programs. The State Department will also have to be careful about restarting any engagement with Pyongyang before the administration has briefed the incoming chairs of the House International Relations Committee and the Asia Subcommittee. The Clinton administration did not do that, and found themselves being yanked back by a Republican Congress concerned about concessions to Pyongyang in 1995 and again in 1998. Overall, this administration has been quite tough-minded and realistic about North Korea, so there should be room for developing common ground with Republicans before moving on to the next stage of diplomacy. If it seems like a contradiction that Pyongyang might expect weakness while the Republicans put on pressure to be tougher, it is—and that reflects the North Koreans’ poor reading of U.S. politics. But it may also be an opportunity for the administration to reinforce the need for Pyongyang to take concrete steps to eliminate their nuclear-weapons program by presenting a united front as much as possible with the Republican Congress.
Problem number four will be China. Beijing must be horrified at the way this midterm played out. In dozens of races Democrats (and some Republicans) played attack ads accusing their opponents of “shipping jobs to China” (accompanied by appropriately ominous Darth Vader–like music and dark clouds rolling over Red Chinese flags). In the 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections China barely registered as a campaign issue. Now it is THE issue in many ways. And in many races the negative ads using China as the bogeyman seemed to work, even if the candidate lost in the end. This will make it extremely difficult for any member of the Senate up for election in 2012 to vote against legislation imposing sanctions on China for currency protectionism. Beijing will also worry about whether this president can control the domestic pressures on U.S.-China relations. This is not to say that China deserves a pass on its currency, human rights and security policies, and every administration since Nixon has used domestic pressure to convince Beijing to make progress on these issues. However, the effectiveness of any president’s China policy depends on his ability to shape and direct these domestic pressures in ways that bring progress while preserving a working relationship with Beijing that does not become zero-sum. The solution would not be for the president to either back down or plead with Hu Jintao for help managing his domestic problems. Instead, the president needs to demonstrate that he is in command of a growing U.S. and international expectation that China must improve transparency, human rights and economic policies. The G-20 summit provides one opportunity to send a common message to Beijing. This would also be an area for reaching across the aisle to Republicans.
The president faces as many opportunities as political risks on this trip. Across the aisle Asia policy is far less contentious than almost any other area of foreign or economic policy. On potentially controversial areas like North Korea policy, the administration has allowed fairly little exposure on its right flank. Secretaries Clinton and Gates have won bipartisan points for their response to China’s recent assertive moves in the South China Sea, the Korean peninsula and the East China Sea. And Republicans will likely be easier to work with on KORUS.
In a more perfect era of bipartisanship, the president might even invite Boehner to join part of the trip, spending time together exploring possibilities for cooperation aboard Air Force One, and demonstrating bipartisanship to leaders in the region on key issues like trade, human rights and the U.S. commitment to allies. That will not happen, of course. Maybe an easier gesture would be for the White House to send the national security advisor to brief the Republican leadership on the visit and solicit ideas. Too hard? Perhaps the White House could send the senior director for Asia to do the same thing with staff. And if that is too hard, then this could prove to be a rough two years for everybody.
(Illustration by Bottelho)