SEOUL, South Korea — Humbled by elections at home, President Barack Obama on Thursday endured a sobering test of his power abroad as well, unable to close a trade deal with South Korea and thrown on the defensive about America’s approach to global economic worries.
From halfway around the world, he admonished both friends and foes back in Washington to "tell the truth" about the pain of cutting the government’s huge spending deficits.
Here on Thursday, on a stage meant to salute triumph, Obama could not announce a free-trade pact with his ally and host, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, because negotiators had none to present them. It was an embarrassing setback given Obama’s high expectations and his desire to deliver more jobs for frustrated Americans at home.
"We want this to be done in a matter of weeks," Obama said of the deal, insisting that trade chiefs will keep working to get a pact that will survive political tests in both nations. Lee called the hang-ups merely technical, and both leaders said allowing extra time was the smart way to deal with obstacles over U.S. beef and auto exports.
Yet the upshot was underwhelming: a determined call for more negotiation.
As the pleasantries of the G-20 economic summit of world leaders began, Obama was still defending a decision that was not his: the Federal Reserve’s move to flood $600 billion of cash into the sluggish American economy to drive down interest rates, spur lending and boost spending. Angry trading partners say that undervalues the dollar and gives U.S. exporters an edge.
In the latest of the short news conferences he’s sprinkling across Asia, Obama was challenged about feeling isolated over U.S. monetary policy heading into the summit. He turned around the notion by predicting good news will emerge: a broad agreement by all nations on a plan for the balanced, stable growth he is championing.
Yet when Lee was asked if there were dangerous implications in the U.S. approach, his first response was no comfort: "That kind of question should be asked to me when President Obama is not standing right next to me."
But he then echoed Obama — U.S. growth is vital to the world — and rejected talk of a destabilizing effect for his own people.
Getting out of Washington for 10 days has had a duel effect on Obama. The timing has given him an escape from the Beltway bubble and offered up memorable moments: dancing with children in India, reliving boyhood stories in Indonesia.
It has also, though, been a busy and tiring trek that will take him all the way around the world. And he keeps getting reminders that what awaits him at home is the aftermath of a losing midterm election and a pile of unfinished business.
The latest sign was news emerging from leaders of his commission on reducing government deficits. They proposed curbs for Social Security benefits, big cuts in federal spending and higher taxes, all of which amount to political dynamite. One of Obama’s closest allies in Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said the proposals were "simply unacceptable."
Obama would not offer his own reaction on Thursday, steering clear of interfering with the commission’s work. But he insisted he was ready to make tough decisions and ended up challenging both parties to show some toughness.
"We’re going to have to take actions that are difficult, and we’re going to have to tell the truth to the American people," the president said. That seemed aimed mostly at Republicans and their talking points, given the way Obama said their general proposals to cut waste, abuse and earmarked lawmaker projects would not be enough to make a serious dent in federal deficits.
Obama’s broader warning applied to his own party, too. "Before anybody starts shooting down proposals," he said, "I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts. I think we have to be straight with the American people."
The president’s dealings with his world peers at summits often produce results that can’t be seen right away. A trade deal that falters or disputes over currency valuation overshadow cooperation on a dozen other topics. Chinese President Hu Jintao, for example, said with Obama at his side: "The Chinese side stands ready to work with the U.S. side."
Such are the competing perspectives that come in Obama’s business. The grinding, bit-by-bit diplomacy can elevate national interests into global cooperation.
And sometimes, there are moments that seem above it all.
On the Veterans Day holiday, the president met with troops and saluted the Korean and American forces who fought in defense of South Korea, a war that started 60 years ago. It’s a part of the job all presidents love.
"You’ll always be the best that America has to offer the world," Obama said to the service members, beaming.
The rest of a testing day awaited him.