After a nine-day trip through Asia in which he showed command on the world stage, President Barack Obama is headed back to debt-deadlocked Washington, where he'll confront fresh reminders of the limits of his power at home.
Obama departed from Bali's international airport Saturday afternoon for a 21-hour flight that, factoring in time-zone changes, was to return him to the White House before dawn Sunday. He'll be arriving days ahead of a deadline for a congressional supercommittee to produce recommendations to attack the country's yawning deficit.
But even though the president spoke to the supercommittee leaders from Air Force One as he headed out of town and urged them to get a deal, the panel is no further along than when Obama left Washington: frozen stuck along partisan lines.
If no agreement is reached, steep cuts would be enacted across the federal government that both sides say they want to avoid, particularly to the defense budget. But no end game was in sight as Obama made his way back home from the other side of the globe.
Also awaiting him are presidential politics heading into the 2012 election year, something Obama largely avoided while traveling in Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia. And with his opponents on the attack over his stewardship of the listless economy, Obama will renew his largely futile efforts to get Congress to pass his jobs bill as he aims to cast Republicans as the ones to blame.
For Obama, it may amount to something of a harsh homecoming after playing proud host in his native Hawaii to a summit of Pacific Rim nations, and traveling on to two countries where he remains highly popular and received warm welcomes.
Obama set out in his Asia-Pacific tour to deepen U.S. engagement in a fast-growing region that the White House views as increasingly critical to America's security and economic prosperity. He achieved some successes, including progress on a regional free-trade deal that could pay off with U.S. jobs, and a new military agreement with Australia that will boost the U.S. defense posture in the region by deploying more marines and U.S. aircraft to Australia.
Obama also announced he was dispatching his secretary of state to Myanmar in a significant step to prod forward reforms in that country, and throughout the trip the complexities of the U.S. relationship with China were on display.
But domestic issues were on Obama's mind as he wrapped up his trip. Obama focused his Saturday morning radio and Internet address on the trade deals he presided over and the jobs they were likely to create back home, including a multi-billion-dollar Boeing sale of commercial planes to Indonesia and a deal to export General Electric engines.
He portrayed his trip around the Pacific Rim as a hunt for new markets.
"As the fastest-growing region in the world, no market is more important to our economic future than the Asia Pacific - a region where our exports already support five million American jobs," he said.
In a further reminder of what awaits Obama in Washington, Saturday's Republican address focused on the work of the supercommittee. Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, a member of the panel and architect of one of the central GOP proposals, said that despite the fast-approaching deadline he remained hopeful lawmakers could still accomplish some deficit reduction.
"We have what is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pass legislation that will generate millions of jobs, create a simpler, fairer tax system with lower rates for everyone, and put our government on a path toward fiscal sanity," he said.
On China, throughout his trip Obama sent both public and private signals to the rising giant, cementing American power in a manner seen to counter China, and scolding Chinese leaders about the need to play by the rules economically.
On the final day of his trip, Saturday in Indonesia, Obama held a surprise meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of an East Asia summit, focusing on the economic matters that have prompted disputes between the two major world powers.
White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told reporters that Obama stressed the importance of China adjusting the value of its currency, which the United States contends is deeply undervalued, and he said Obama and Wen also briefly discussed territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China's state broadcaster, CCTV, reported that Wen told Obama the grim global economic picture made it practical and necessary for the U.S. and China to strengthen their economic and trade relationship.
He said more trade and investment would help ease the Sino-U.S. trade imbalance. Wen also restated Beijing's call for the U.S. to relax restrictions on high-tech exports to China, CCTV reported.
China, Wen said, had made strides in reforming its currency exchange and would continue to do so, the broadcaster said.
Later, Obama and leaders at an East Asia summit retreat raised the issue of maritime security, prompting Wen to respond. A senior U.S. administration official told reporters aboard Air Force One that Wen's remarks signaled a gradual evolution toward resolving quarrels with Asian neighbors over the major shipping route. He said U.S. officials were encouraged by Wen's response.
Donilon downplayed tensions and rejected suggestions that the nine-day mission in the Asia-Pacific was designed to thwart a rising China. The U.S. policy, Donilon said, was about rebalancing U.S. interests and focusing once more on the Asia-pacific region.
"This has nothing to do with isolating or containing anybody," he said.
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