Analysis: Obama runs into limits of his power

08:25, November 12, 2010      

Email | Print | Subscribe | Comments | Forum 

Humbled by elections at home, U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday endured a sobering test of his power abroad, unable to close a trade deal with South Korea and thrown on the defensive about America's approach to global economic worries.

According to An Associated Press report, from halfway around the world, Obama admonished both friends and foes back in Washington to "tell the truth" about the pain of cutting the government's huge spending deficits.

In Seoul on Thursday, on a stage meant to salute triumph, Obama could not announce a free-trade pact with his ally and host, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. It was an embarrassing setback given Obama's high expectations and his desire to deliver more jobs for frustrated Americans at home.

"We want this to be done in a matter of weeks," Obama said of the deal, insisting that trade chiefs will keep working to get a pact that will survive political tests in both countries. Lee called the hang-ups merely technical, and both leaders said allowing extra time was the smart way to deal with obstacles over U.S. beef and autos.

Yet the upshot was underwhelming: a determined call for more negotiation, said the AP analysis.

As the pleasantries of the G-20 economic summit of world leaders began, Obama was still defending a decision that was not his: the Federal Reserve's move to flood $600 billion of cash into the sluggish American economy to drive down interest rates, spur lending and boost spending. Angry trading partners say the Fed intervention undervalues the dollar and gives U.S. exporters an edge.

In the latest of the short news conferences he's sprinkling across Asia, Obama was challenged about feeling isolated over U.S. monetary policy. He turned around the notion by predicting good news will emerge: a broad agreement by all nations on a plan for the balanced, stable growth he is championing.

Yet when Lee was asked if there were dangerous implications in the U.S. approach, his first response was no comfort: "That kind of question should be asked to me when President Obama is not standing right next to me."

Getting out of Washington for 10 days has had a duel effect on Obama. The timing has given him an escape from the Beltway bubble and offered up memorable moments: dancing with children in India, and reliving boyhood stories in Indonesia.

It has also, though, been a busy and tiring trek that will take him all the way around the world. And he keeps getting reminders that what awaits him at home is the aftermath of a losing midterm election and a pile of unfinished business.

The latest sign was news emerging from leaders of his commission on reducing government deficits. They proposed curbs for Social Security benefits, big cuts in federal spending and higher taxes, all of which amount to political dynamite. One of Obama's closest allies in Washington, Nancy Pelosi, said the proposals were "simply unacceptable."

Obama would not offer his own reaction on Thursday, steering clear of interfering with the commission's work. But he insisted he was ready to make tough decisions and ended up challenging both parties to show some toughness.

"We're going to have to take actions that are difficult, and we're going to have to tell the truth to the American people," Obama said. "Before anybody starts shooting down proposals," he said, "I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts. I think we have to be straight with the American people."

The president's dealings with his world peers at summits often produce results that can't be seen right away. A trade deal that falters or disputes over currency valuation overshadow cooperation on a dozen other topics. Chinese President Hu Jintao, for example, said with Obama at his side: "The Chinese side stands ready to work with the U.S. side."

Such are the competing perspectives that come in Obama's business. The grinding, bit-by-bit diplomacy can elevate national interests into global cooperation.

And sometimes, there are moments that seem above it all.

On the Veterans Day holiday, the U.S. president met with troops and saluted the Korean and American armed forces. It's a part of the job all presidents love. "You'll always be the best that America has to offer the world," Obama said to the service members, beaming.

The rest of a testing day awaited him.



  • Do you have anything to say?


Special Coverage
  • Premier Wen Jiabao visits Hungary, Britain, Germany
  • From drought to floods
Major headlines
Editor's Pick
  • Chinese Navy soldiers hold an evening party marking the upcoming 62nd National Day aboard Chinese Navy hospital ship "Peace Ark" in the Pacific on Sept. 28, 2011. The Chinese National Day falls on Oct. 1. (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)
  • Photo taken on Sept. 30, 2011 shows the crowd at the plaza of Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, capital of China. The railway transportation witnessed a travel peak with the approach of the seven-day National Day holidays on Friday. (Xinhua)
  • A man wearing high-heel shoes takes part in the 3rd annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, an event when men literally walk in women's shoes to raise awareness about ending violence against women, at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, Canada, Sept. 29, 2011. (Xinhua/Zou Zheng)
  • Photo taken on Sept. 29, 2011 shows a cargo ship in danger on the sea near Zhuhai City, south China's Guangdong Province. Cargo ship Fangzhou 6 of Qingzhou of southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region lost control after water stormed into its cabin due to Typhoon Nesat on the sea near Zhuhai Thursday, leaving 12 crew members in danger. Rescuers rushed to the ship and saved them by using a helicopter. (Xinhua)
  • Actress Gong Li poses for L'Officiel Magazine. (Xinhua Photo)
  • Demonstrators from the Occupy Wall Street campaign hold placards as they march in the financial district of New York September 29, 2011. After hundreds of protesters were denied access to some areas outside the New York Stock Exchange on September 17, demonstrators set up a rag-tag camp three blocks away. Zuccotti Park is a campground festooned with placards and anti-Wall Street slogans. The group is adding complaints of excessive police force against protesters and police treatment of ethnic minorities and Muslims to its grievances list, which includes bank bailouts, foreclosures and high unemployment. (Xinhua/Reuters Photo)
Hot Forum Discussion