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China Trip A Chance For Obama To Distance Himself From Midterm Losses

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama shared a vigorous handshake today with Chinese president Xi Jinping. The leaders met at the opening ceremony of an Asian-Pacific economic summit in Beijing. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the trip is also a chance to put a wide ocean between the president and the domestic drubbing his party took in last week's elections.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Call it a Pacific Rim shot. The president's weeklong trip to Asia could serve as a bit of political punctuation, turning the page on the Democrats' disastrous midterm results and focusing instead on overseas potential in a region that's home to 40 percent of the world's population and that generates 60 cents of every global dollar.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And over the next five years nearly half of all economic growth outside of the United States is projected to come from right here in Asia. That makes this region an incredible opportunity for creating jobs and economic growth in the United States.

HORSLEY: Today, the U.S. and China announced an agreement to extend a travel visas in both directions so their valid for five or even 10 years, rather than just one. The deal is designed to make it easier for tourists, students and business people from both countries to visit, study and invest abroad.

For years, Obama's a trade negotiators have been trying to forge a free trade agreement among a dozen Pacific countries. Leaders of that group gathered today at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. And while they didn't produce a final deal, Obama insists they are making good progress.

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OBAMA: Agreements like this will benefit our economies and our people, but they also send a strong message that what's important isn't just whether our economies continue to grow, but how they grow.

HORSLEY: For now, the trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership does not include China, the world's second-biggest economy. But Obama insists the U.S. is not trying to stifle China's growth. Still, aides say Obama will confront Xi this week about more sensitive subjects including human rights and cyber espionage. The White House says it's unacceptable that the Chinese government uses spy capabilities for the benefit of Chinese businesses.

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OBAMA: As they grow we want them to be a partner in underwriting the international order, not undermining it.

HORSLEY: One question though is whether Obama himself has been undermined by his party's political fortunes back home.

ERNEST BOWER: I think when Southeast Asia looks at this trip and him coming, they're wondering who is Barack Obama now, after the midterm elections?

HORSLEY: Ernest Bower is former president of the US-ASEAN Business Council.

BOWER: President Obama has the Asia engagement DNA in his blood. It's what he wants to do, but he's been sort of hijacked by domestic politics and the elections in the United States.

HORSLEY: Bower says the jury is still out on whether Obama can regain his international prestige or if he's already a kind of lame, Beijing duck. Ken Lieberthal says don't count Obama out just yet. Lieberthal was former President Bill Clinton's point person on Asia during his last two years in office. Like Obama, Clinton faced a hostile Congress but still managed to rack up some foreign-policy achievements.

KEN LIEBERTHAL: I think it's important for the president to make clear by his posture, by his agenda - to show that he is determined to use his last two years in office to be a very active player in foreign-policy.

HORSLEY: One plus for the president is the growing strength of the U.S. economy. While American voters are clearly dissatisfied with what they're seeing in their paychecks, many of the other countries represented at this week's summits are in much worse shape. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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