ASG Senior Vice President Eric Altbach comments on U.S.-China relations in The Wall Street Journal

Obama’s New Path Faces Collision Course

GOP Expected to Push Back on Immigration Changes, China Climate Pact; Democrats May Object to Trade Efforts

By: Carol E. Lee

The Wall Street Journal

November 16, 2014

BRISBANE, Australia—In the days since the U.S. midterm elections, President Barack Obama has begun grooming his legacy in ways that place him on a collision course not just with Republicans in Congress, but with his own Democratic Party.

During a series of global summits in China, Myanmar and Australia over the past week, Mr. Obama netted several foreign policy victories and vowed to use the momentum to pursue his domestic agenda in Washington.

“From trade to climate change to the fight against Ebola, this was a strong week for American leadership,” Mr. Obama said Sunday during a news conference in Australia. “I intend to build on that momentum when I return home.”

He vowed to take executive action that could give legal status to millions of immigrants in the U.S. without an act of Congress, and he put his thumb on the scale in favor of liberal activists and Silicon Valley companies in a high-stakes debate over federally regulating the Internet.

All of it appears designed to demonstrate his continued relevancy on the heels of an election that solidified his status as a politically weakened lame duck.

But some of his overseas victories are likely to stir political antipathy at home. The historic climate-change deal with China, in which the U.S. and China both committed to future carbon reductions, could stoke Republican ire. Democrats, meanwhile, are likely to be uncomfortable with the aggressive trade agenda Mr. Obama outlined.

Several of Mr. Obama’s predecessors faced a similar dynamic at this point in their second terms, and also turned to foreign policy as a source of renewal for their latter years.

“A lot can happen on foreign policy even for a lame-duck president and even for a president that faces difficult congressional circumstances,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

President Ronald Reagan signed a landmark nuclear arms treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 after his party lost control of the Senate in midterm elections, prompting threats from Republicans not to ratify it because they didn’t trust Mr. Gorbachev. The treaty later was approved.

President George W. Bush ordered a troop surge in Iraq after his party lost in the 2006 midterms, drawing criticism from Democrats and Republicans who argued that voters had sent the message that they wanted fewer, not more, troops in Iraq.

Messrs. Reagan and Bush responded to the criticism with different approaches, said Mr. Zelizer. “Reagan’s playbook was to win the war of public opinion,” he said, while Mr. Bush’s model was riskier: “Move forward with what you want to do and hope everyone follows.”

A senior Obama administration official said the president will work to win public support for his climate change and trade policies. His approach, the official said, will be more in line with that of Mr. Reagan’s use of the bully pulpit than with Mr. Bush’s approach.

Even after notching a measure of foreign policy success, Mr. Obama faces challenges in converting that to domestic advances. He also faces a credibility problem in Asia, analysts say, after promising many times that he would dedicate significant presidential attention to the region only to be drawn into crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.

“People pay very close attention to whether we show up and whether we follow through. We’re going to be held to that standard,” said Eric Altbach, who was deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for China Affairs under Presidents Bush and Obama.

Mr. Altbach, who is a senior vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group, noted China’s increasingly robust effort to make financial and infrastructure investments in the same countries Mr. Obama has cultivated in the region. “There is competition,” he said. “The Chinese are there and they’re going to continue to be there.”

Also unclear is how Mr. Obama will ensure the new show of U.S.-China cooperation doesn’t unravel, given Beijing’s increasing assertiveness. At the end of the gathering of Group of 20 leaders in Brisbane on Sunday, leaders announced that China will host the summit in 2016.

An added complication is that Mr. Obama’s foreign policy landscape is littered with global problems: in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and the Ebola crisis in Africa.

When Mr. Obama departed Australia, he hadn’t been in the air for more three hours before Islamic State militants released a new video showing the beheading of another American. And Mr. Obama, during Sunday’s news conference, appeared to leave open a possibility of deploying U.S. combat units in Iraq and Syria, lining up more closely with his top military advisers.

The question facing Mr. Obama when he returns to Washington is how he will use his overseas successes to influence his new political dynamic at home, said Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser under President George W. Bush, including whether to pursue an agenda that leans more on unilateral power or try to get more enduring things done with Republicans, such as trade efforts.

Earlier this year, in a display of political caution, Mr. Obama broke his promise of taking executive action on immigration policy before the midterm elections after Democrats complained that it would hurt their campaigns.

Now, with more attention on his legacy, he is returning to a pledge of more aggressive action.

In foreign policy the evolution is most evident in his approach to China.

Two years ago, Mr. Obama kicked off his re-election year by creating a special Trade Enforcement Unit designed to go after China on what he described as “unfair” trade practices. He followed up with a series of complaints against China at the World Trade Organization, which he unveiled in key battleground states such as Ohio to win votes among Americans who want the U.S. to take a hard line with Beijing.

Last week, however, Mr. Obama took steps that put him closer to a trade deal opposed by those same voters, as well as labor groups, that have long been a bedrock Democratic constituency.

The moves carry risks given that the U.S. and China continue to have significant differences, particularly on maritime issues in the South China Sea. China’s moves in other areas to counter U.S. influence—such as by strengthening its ties in the region—suggest Beijing has become more sophisticated at geopolitics, said David Rothkopf, chief executive and editor of the FP Group, publisher of Foreign Policy magazine.

“They have a clear strategy for increasing their influence. As of yet, it is unclear whether we have such a strategy,” Mr. Rothkopf said.


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