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Analysis:Obama pivots towards Asia, eyeing U.S. exports and jobs

U.S. President Barack Obama departs on Air Force One from the East Asia Summit, in Denpasar, Bali
U.S. President Barack Obama departs on Air Force One from the East Asia Summit, in Denpasar, Bali

By Caren Bohan and Laura MacInnis

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama sought to charm Asia-Pacific leaders this week with Australian slang and memories from his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia in his bid to boost U.S. ties with the fast-growing region.

The top goal of the nine-day trip, which took Obama away from Washington just as U.S. budget battles were intensifying, was to cement a foreign policy "pivot" toward Asia that could open the door to more American exports and jobs.

The Democratic president, struggling in the polls after bitter fights with Republicans in Congress, geared his Asia message to U.S. voters who will decide next November whether to give him another four years in office.

In Honolulu, Australia and the Indonesian island of Bali, Obama sought out every chance to talk about America's export potential, and the White House previewed Boeing and GE deals with Asia that it said could sustain 130,000 U.S. jobs.

Hitching the lackluster U.S. economy to the world's fastest growing region could be a "win-win" for American companies and workers as well as for the increasingly affluent Asian consumers who might buy their products, Obama said.

He also sharpened his tone toward China in a strategy that might help him counter criticism from Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, who has accused Obama of being willing to only "whisper" to Beijing about U.S. trade concerns.

'KEY GOALS'

Obama was clearly at ease in Asia, especially in Bali where he marveled at the island's development in the years since he was there writing his book "Dreams From My Father."

He greeted leaders at a Friday dinner with "Selamat Malam," drawing from the Bahasa Indonesia he learned as a boy in Jakarta, and was welcomed at a fundraising event in Honolulu as "Keiki o ka 'aina" - child of the land.

As he left Bali on Saturday to return to a still-divided Washington, White House officials seemed confident the messages from his Asia tour would resonate well at home.

"From our perspective, we've been able to positively advance each of the key goals that we had for the course of this trip. And I think that's been in the U.S. interest," said Tom Donilon, Obama's top national security adviser.

In addition to the trade accord, Obama also unveiled a new military partnership with Asia and seized on a diplomatic opening with Myanmar by announcing that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would soon visit the reclusive country.

Casting himself as a strong leader is fundamental to Obama's hopes for re-election a year from now.

His leadership on China is a particularly potent political issue. Obama acknowledged in a meeting in Honolulu with Chinese President Hu Jintao that Americans are increasingly frustrated with what they see as an unfair approach by Beijing on currency and trade policy.

Romney has accused Obama of soft-pedaling the U.S. concerns about trade with China.

"Who can blame the Chinese for ignoring our complaints when the status quo has served them so well?" Romney asked in an opinion piece in the Politico newspaper.

As if on cue, Obama, who was criticized for taking an overly accommodating approach in a 2009 trip to Beijing, called the U.S.-Chinese relationship "off-kilter" and suggested China was now too "grown up" to flout international trade rules.

Beijing seemed to find the shift jarring and it was unclear whether Obama managed to ease the tensions in conversations he had near the end of the trip with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

BUDGET BATTLES

When Obama returns to the White House, one of his first orders of business will be to get up to speed on the struggles of the congressional "super committee."

The panel of Democratic and Republican lawmakers is trying to craft a deal to cut the U.S. budget deficit by $1.2 trillion with a deadline looming on Wednesday, the day before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Few in Washington are hopeful the committee can break its impasse and a failure would be a blow to both Obama's Democrats and opposition Republicans.

In Hawaii, he even hinted that the budget battles and his push for to pass initiatives on jobs could disrupt his plans to return to Hawaii for a family vacation in December.

He also referred jokingly to the stalemate during his visit to Canberra, Australia's capital, where he said he was eager to introduce "ear-bashing" -- an Australian expression for lecturing somebody -- to Washington's vernacular.

Some have questioned whether the U.S. fiscal strains could limit America's ability to serve as a counterweight to China, especially if the congressional "super committee" fails to reach a deal and defense budgets suffer blunt cuts.

But with Europe mired in debt crisis, both Democrats and Republicans are clearly focused on Asia as a key economic partner for the United States. Foreign policy experts say that is unlikely to change no matter who wins the 2012 election.

"It is a safe bet that Obama and his successors - despite powerful fiscal and political constraints at home - will be able to follow through on plans to bulk up America's presence," said Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor.

(Additional reporting by Samson Reiny, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

(This story corrects the title of Obama's book to "Dreams From My Father" from "Dreams Of My Father" in the 7th paragraph)

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