Has a president ever been less successful on a trip overseas than President Obama has on his eight-day excursion to Asia? I've been covering presidents since Gerald Ford and I can't think of one.
Obama struck out on his entire agenda in China and he acquiesced as the Chinese subjected him to the humiliation of a choreographed town hall meeting with student members of the Young Communist League. And he suffered through a 30-minute news conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao in which no questions from the media were allowed. Presidents normally come away on visits to foreign countries with "deliverables"--that is, tangible signs of progress like a treaty signing. All Obama got was a list of things the United States and China would do in the future. There's a name for this: diplomatic boilerplate.
Obama's aides and flacks insisted he wasn't looking for immediate gains in the American relationship with China. Instead he was developing stronger relations for long term. This reminds me of what his defenders say about a football running back who doesn't gain many yards. He's a great blocker. Yeah, right!
And imagine the embarrassment of being lectured by the Chinese about being protectionist. No previous president has been subjected to that. China manipulates its currency and is protectionist itself. Yet Obama didn't have a good comeback to the charge because his administration has slapped tariffs on imports of Chinese tires and pipe. And Obama has declined to push for ratification of a free trade treaty, negotiated by the Bush administration, with South Korea.
What didn't Obama get in China? He wanted China to join in pressuring on Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program. He got nowhere on that. He hoped China would step up on curbing global warming. Again, he largely failed. He wished China would begin to strengthen its undervalued currency. On that, he got China's umpteenth promise to start that process--a hollow promise if there ever was one. Then there was human rights. No progress on that either.
That wasn't all. Even before Obama arrived in China, the U.S. was criticized at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum by Russia, Mexico, and China for creeping protectionism. The best Obama, who now calls himself "America's first Pacific president," could offer was willingness to negotiate a possible U.S. membership in a minor trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Also at the forum, Obama had to settle for less than he sought on global warming. As a result, next month's international meeting at Copenhagen will only be a stepping stone to a comprehensive treaty later to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, China zinged Obama for the weakened dollar.
One surprise of the trip was the press coverage. For once in Obama's case, it wasn't adoring. Obama took his lumps from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times for his lack of accomplishment. "When it came to China, President Obama's famous powers of persuasion failed to persuade," wrote Barbara Demick of the LA Times. "Not only is the U.S. president coming away without definable concessions, but the Chinese appeared to be digging in their heels."
For Obama, the honeymoon with the press may be over.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.