Weakened Obama tested on global stage

Barack Obama's Asia trip has turned into an early test of whether the US president's global goals and prestige will survive his weakened grip on domestic power, following a painful rebuke from voters.

In India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, Obama is trying to pull off the trick of advancing a still ambitious foreign policy, while reducing high unemployment left barely touched by the sluggish economic recovery.

Obama once jetted the globe as the bright new hope of US diplomacy, smashing the war-scarred legacy of his predecessor George W. Bush with soaring appeals to Muslims, allies and foes, and getting a Nobel prize for his pains.

Now, after the Democratic mid-term election slump, foreign leaders may wonder if the brave new world where diplomatic breakthroughs have been fleeting, is a mere interlude in a long Republican era.

They also want to assess whether Obama can regroup before the 2012 presidential election.
Obama's long flight to India may have offered him a first, concentrated chance to reflect on the Republican rout which seized the House of Representatives and slashed the Democratic Senate majority.

Despite his defeat, he could thank the US Constitution for reserving foreign policy largely for the US president, offering freedom of manoeuvre he rarely gets on domestic issues.

But a hostile Congress can frustrate a president's goals, withhold funding for priorities, and hike the political price of a specific foreign policy course.

It is already certain that Republicans will kill Obama's bid to pass laws cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

And the president would ignore the message of the elections at his peril.

"That the economy is the major concern of voters is pretty clear," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor and expert on the domestic political impact of US foreign policy.

"I assume the administration will (baulk) at using its political energy on overseas initiatives right now."

Obama's peers, especially at the G20 summit in Seoul and the APEC summit in Yokohama, Japan, may worry that fiscal and monetary policy could be hurt by his diminished domestic clout.

"While politics traditionally stops at the water's edge, the economic policy of the United States does not," said Daniel Price, a former Bush adviser responsible for G20 issues.

Foreign leaders will want answers on implications for deficit reduction, trade, and efforts to stimulate US economic growth, said Price, now a partner at law firm Sidley Austin.

Some analysts believe foreign policy and foreign markets may hold the key to US economic recovery and a political boost for Obama.

"The president knows that his administration's future ultimately rests on addressing domestic issues, especially jobs and economic opportunity. But the road to economic recovery runs through Asia," said Patrick Cronin, of the Center For A New American Security.

Obama made a rueful reference to his plight here Saturday, noting that even "messy" democracy was best, though "sometimes, the election doesn't turn out as you'd like".

But after a year largely constrained to US shores, Obama also seemed energised by the sweeping promise of diplomacy, in a speech conjuring up the potential of US-India economic ties.

The administration must now carefully assess the new political environment as it calibrates its global agenda for the next two years.

For instance, hawkish House Republican leaders will bristle at criticism by Obama of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the president pursues his Middle East peace drive.

Republicans may also flex power by preventing ratification of a new START nuclear treaty with Russia in a "lame duck" session of the old chamber this month.

And they could cut Obama administration budget requests on foreign aid, or slow the confirmation of ambassadors for nations where Republicans oppose administration foreign policy.

Republicans may also highlight administration splits on the Afghan war.

But there could be opportunities - possibly to frame a bipartisan coalition on stalled trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia, freeing Obama from trade unions vital to Democrats.

Such a coalition may also give Obama more breathing room on trade and currency disputes with China.

However, the rise of the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement raises questions about the traditional pro-trade Republican consensus.

Parts of the new Republican coalition contain elements which appear hawkish towards communist China, while others have an isolationist streak.

Obama must also factor in liberal anger over China's economic policies and his decision to escalate the Afghan war.

He cannot rule out an unlikely Democratic primary challenge from his left in 2012 either, a campaign that would further weaken the president ahead of a fight with Republicans.

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