Ever since the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have been judged on the successes they notch during their first 100 days. Now, as Barack Obama prepares to end his historic turn on the political stage, Yahoo News is launching The Last 100 Days, a look at what Obama achieved during his consequential presidency, how he navigates the struggles of his final months in office and what lies ahead for him after eight years filled with firsts. And we will look at how the country bids farewell to its first African-American president.
It’s not a literal 100 days — Obama leaves office in late January 2017.
And it won’t all be about policy. As Obama himself is fond of noting, he also spent his two terms as father to daughters Malia and Sasha and husband to first lady Michelle Obama. And even without much input from the White House, the cultural landscape shifted dramatically over his two terms on issues such as gay rights.
And then there’s the way the president sees the presidency — not just his tumultuous years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but also the institution and its relationships (for better or worse) with other branches of government and with the news media.
In this fourth installment, we look at Obama’s final trip to China and take stock of his efforts to improve relations with that rising Asian power.
Barack Obama embarked this week on his 11th and final presidential trip to Asia, a voyage that could be his last serious shot at shaping America’s complex ties with China before he cedes what is arguably the world’s most important bilateral state relationship to his successor.
Obama’s legacy in Asia remains an open question. Aides say he made progress in the decades-long, bipartisan effort to realign American power in response to China’s military and economic rise.
Republicans have backed some of his approaches: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has praised Obama’s historic opening to Myanmar, while Sen. John McCain has supported the administration’s quest for closer ties with Vietnam.
Still, the president has suffered obvious setbacks: North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile is larger and its ballistic missile program is further along than when he took office. And U.S. officials have privately blamed Chinese hackers for a massive theft of government personnel files in 2014.
There have been promising openings, such as growing cooperation between Washington and Beijing on fighting climate change and containing the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. But like his two immediate predecessors, Obama has had mixed results trying to convince Beijing to play by international rules largely drafted by the West.
Obama’s “theory of the case is that there are ways in which China presents a serious competitive threat to American security and economic interests in Asia. There’s also a broad recognition that we need to work with China to address both regional challenges as well as global ones,” Evan Medeiros, who served as the top Asia official on Obama’s national security council, told Yahoo News. “The question is what is the right balance that serves U.S. interests?”
Obama visit comes as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal — his boldest attempt to reassure China’s nervous neighbors while affirming U.S. leadership in the Pacific Rim — seems destined for failure, at least during his presidency. The 12-state pact shows no sign of advancing towards congressional approval, and both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton publicly oppose it.
The conflicts and contradictions of the Sino-U.S. relationship may be on display Saturday, when Obama holds talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in the eastern coastal city of Hangzhou, just south of Shanghai. The leaders will take stock of the past eight years and explore what they can still achieve in the American president’s waning months in office.
“This is going to be the last occasion of this sort for the president to spend several hours with his Chinese counterpart and to review the state of U.S.-China relations and to try to see where we can make progress, and working together on areas of common interest or bridging some of the differences that have been characteristic of the relationship,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in a briefing at the White House on Monday.
Obama and Xi are expected to press ahead with implementing the agreement reached in Paris last winter to reduce the carbon emissions that scientists blame for global warming. Obama is also expected to criticize China’s assertions of sovereignty over the South China Sea. An international court recently rejected China’s claims over the strategically important maritime area, which contains significant oil and natural gas deposits, among other valuable resources.
“The question really now is: To what extent is China prepared to recognize and abide by that international ruling?” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Tuesday. “The United States welcomes the peaceful rise of China.” But, Earnest stressed, recent actions by Beijing have left neighbors “uneasy” about whether its rise is truly peaceful, and raised questions about the Asian giant’s commitment to international institutions and norms.
Obama also plans to use his appearance on the world stage to make the case for TPP ratification at home.
“TPP is, in many ways, seen as a litmus test for whether or not the U.S. has staying power in this region,” Rhodes told reporters. “We are a Pacific power, and we have been traditionally, but we’re also on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. And what the countries of the Asia-Pacific region want to know, particularly the Asian countries, is whether or not we can be counted on.”
Sometimes politically fraught bills like TPP emerge during Congress’ lame-duck session between the November election and the January inauguration of the next president. But it’s unlikely at best for TPP to be ratified then. McConnell recently said the Senate would not vote on the accord. But McConnell also told Yahoo News during July’s Republican nominating convention that the agreement could be fixed and taken up by lawmakers under the next administration.
A U.S. official told Yahoo News that Obama would also press Xi for help on North Korea, which has ramped up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father as supreme leader.
“There’s a real sense of frustration” inside the White House about North Korea, said Medeiros, who stepped down from the NSC in June 2015 and now advises companies looking to do business in Asia. “Obama has to go to the next president and say, ‘Well, under my watch these programs actually got better, this threat to the United States has grown.’”
During his 2008 campaign for the presidency, Obama focused more on China’s trade practices than the country’s potential influence as North Korea’s patron.
Obama hit Beijing hard and often, accusing its leaders of unfair trade tactics and shady environmental practices that threatened American jobs and even endangered American children, who might be “chewing on toys with lead paint on them.” He repeatedly demanded that Americans be “tougher negotiators” with the Chinese.
“They are not enemies, but they are competitors of ours,” he said at a December 2007 debate. “Right now, the United States is still the dominant superpower in the world. But the next president can’t be thinking about today; he or she also has to be thinking about 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now.”
Ten months after taking office, Obama visited Japan, declared himself a “Pacific president” and announced that “the United States expects to be involved” in Asian affairs. He insisted that “the United States does not seek to contain China” — a deliberate effort to avoid Cold War-era language about “containing” the Soviet Union. He also promised to increase trade between the United States and China and improve military-to-military ties. At the same time, he promised countries like Japan and South Korea that should not fear “a weakening of our bilateral alliances.” Obama also made good on promises to take action against China at the World Trade Organization. In 2012, he unveiled what came to be labeled his “pivot” to Asia, giving the region fresh attention amid Middle East turmoil.
Obama’s campaign criticisms and subsequent in-office recalibration of American policy towards China and Asia broadly built on work done by his two immediate predecessors.
In 1992, Bill Clinton invoked still-fresh memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre by denouncing “the butchers of Beijing.” But his more lasting legacy was to strengthen Sino-U.S. ties by granting China “permanent normal trade relations” — a requirement to enable its entry into the World Trade Organization. Pressure from the U.S. business community was a factor in the shift, but American officials argued that bringing China into international institutions would both strengthen those institutions and subject Beijing to international norms.
In 2000, George W. Bush attacked Clinton for viewing China as a “strategic partner” and instead labeled Beijing a “strategic competitor.” As president, Bush tussled with China over human rights and Taiwan, but also tried to work with its leaders on issues of national security. In a speech to Japan’s Diet in February 2002, he said that the 21st century would be a “Pacific century” and that America would lead as a “Pacific nation.” He worked to reassure U.S. allies across the Pacific that he would not neglect them despite his focus on terrorism and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama built on both of his predecessors’ legacies, pulling China deeper into international institutions and reaffirming U.S. regional influence. He led an effort to expand China’s role at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. And he expanded U.S. influence in Asia by attending annual summits with the ASEAN group of Southeast Asian nations, and by expanding the U.S. military presence in the region with a rotating Marine deployment in Australia.
Aides say Obama hasn’t changed his overall view of China since taking office.
“There has been no fundamental reevaluation,” according to Jeff Bader, who served as Obama’s top NSC adviser on Asia from 2009 to 2011. “What’s changed is we’re clearly dealing with a China with far greater global capabilities.”
Medeiros said Obama is “not somebody that came in with illusions, either positive or negative, on China.”
But compared to 2009, “he has deeper appreciation of the range of security and strategic challenges that China presents,” Medeiros said.
The next president must understand that the Chinese “are not strategic enemies,” said Bader, who warned that, “They could become that if we mishandle the relationship or they evolve into hypernationalism.”
For whoever becomes the next president, Bader said, “the challenge is to try the right mix of carrots and sticks in dealing with a relationship that’s both competitive and cooperative, while dealing with a much more substantial and capable actor.”