BRISBANE, Australia — President Barack Obama left Washington a week ago with sagging approval ratings on foreign policy, after a year of crises ranging from the Ebola outbreak to the rise of Islamic militants to violence by Ukrainian separatists.
He'll return this evening feeling rejuvenated after a swing through the Asia Pacific region that netted a potentially major deal with China on climate change and might provide a renewed sense that the United States still holds sway on the major issues of the day.
Obama's eight-day, three-nation tour won't turn around public perception of his global leadership, and the outcome of the crises that have preoccupied his administration over the past year are very much still in doubt. But the trip helped him to rediscover his voice and make a forceful case for his worldview. And his concrete accomplishments from the visit provided a rare chance to boast.
In addition to getting China to reduce carbon emissions in a first-of-its-kind agreement, Obama will bring back to Washington a plan with Beijing that could lead to the first major international tariff reduction in 17 years. He also announced new U.S. commitments — $3 billion to a United Nations fund to help developing countries deal with the effects of global warming, and the creation of a new Peace Corps bureau in Myanmar.
Obama and his aides hope the trip sets the stage for his final two years in office, a time when two-term presidents traditionally turn more attention to foreign policy. The president delivered a 5,400-word speech at the University of Queensland here on Saturday — an address billed as a talk about U.S. leadership in the Asia Pacific region, but one that touched on a broad range of issues: security, economics, trade, climate change, gay rights, women's rights, health care and human rights.
"Our world is getting smaller," Obama said, emphasizing that the United States is determined to help shape events across the globe.
Asked about the broad nature of Obama's remarks, a senior administration official said the goal was to "underscore or highlight the agenda for the next two years. The bulk of the speech covered areas where we are going to continue to invest."
Obama's critics have said the president has, despite his rhetoric, overseen a foreign policy that has diminished the role of the United States in global affairs and allowed other actors — Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — to feel emboldened to expand their power and influence.
But the president took on Xi directly during the first stop on his trip, a three-day visit to Beijing, and more than held his own. In addition to the climate and tariff deals, the United States and China hammered out an agreement to relax short-term visa restrictions for students, tourists, and businesses.
Obama also took the opportunity at the 21-nation Asia Pacific Economic Forum meeting in Beijing to deal with Putin. They chatted informally three times on the sidelines of the APEC sessions, speaking on Ebola, ISIS and the fighting in eastern Ukraine, for a total of 15 to 20 minutes, White House aides said.
In his stop in Myanmar, Obama gave voice to American values such as free speech, democratic elections, and tolerance for religious and ethnic diversity — a theme that human rights advocates say has gotten short shrift in Obama's international agenda.
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Obama aides said the broader goal of the week was to make the point that the United States' Asia pivot is not aimed simply at increasing America's influence in Asia, but also at enlisting U.S. allies — and even some traditional adversaries — in increasing Asia's role in global problem-solving.