By Sam Youngman and Ian Swanson - 09/23/09 12:16 AM EDT
A busy day spent pivoting from one foreign policy challenge to another at the United Nations General Assembly was capped with a head-to-head meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who was expected to press Obama on the U.S. commitment to free trade less than two weeks after his country was hit with new U.S. tariffs on tire exports.
Obama remains an international star popular with foreign leaders and news media. He drew applause with his remarks on climate change, and stood for pictures with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
A climate change bill is stuck in the Senate, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week signaled it is unlikely to be considered this year, leading some officials to say it is Washington that is the obstacle to a global climate deal, not China.
Obama has found it difficult to win additional help for the effort in Afghanistan, which threatens to divide Democrats over the issue of increasing U.S. troops. Israel’s government has continued to build settlements in Palestinian areas despite U.S. objections, and foreign countries have been slow to work with the U.S. in accepting detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, which Obama wants to close early next year.
Behind the scenes, administration officials sometimes have made it clear they are frustrated with some of the criticism that has come from allies.
Michael Froman, a deputy national security adviser, insisted after Obama’s speech that there has been a “seismic change” in U.S. climate policy under the new administration, and suggested this has gone unrecognized by allies in Europe. “We are in a strong position, and in a position which we regard as quite comparable to where the Europeans are,” Froman said.
In his address at the U.N., Obama emphasized the shift in the U.S. position on climate change since the administration of former President George W. Bush. He said the U.S. had been slow to recognize the magnitude of the climate threat.
“We recognize that. But this is a new day. It is a new era. And I am proud to say that the United States has done more to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution in the last eight months than at any other time in our history,” he said.
He also stressed that the House had approved a climate bill and one committee in the Senate had taken action, though he failed to acknowledge that panel did not cap emissions.
But Obama also warned that at the world summit in Copenhagen, Denmark this December, it will be difficult to achieve a climate deal, particularly given the economic climate.
“We seek sweeping but necessary change in the midst of a global recession, where every nation’s most immediate priority is reviving their economy and putting their people back to work,” Obama said.
Administration officials put out the message that Obama is pressing Congress to act and that climate change is a priority. They also offered hope that a climate bill could still be added to the Senate schedule, however unrealistic that may be as Congress grapples with healthcare reform.
“We all know that how the schedule works in Congress can change abruptly,” said Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change. “It can go faster, it can go slower. What we need is comprehensive legislation, and we’re going to do our best to get it as soon as we can.”
Domestic pressures are also complicating Obama’s attempts to work with China. He imposed tariffs on Chinese tires after a union filed a petition under a little-used U.S. law, and Obama was under heavy pressure from Democrats in Congress to curb China’s exports.
But the president also wants China to cooperate with the U.S. on sensitive economic and foreign policy issues. These run from the handling of Iran’s nuclear capabilities to the development of a global economy in which the U.S. exports more to China and does not depend so heavily on Americans buying Chinese goods.
Obama told Hu that Iran was a “vital issue” to U.S. national security, and that the U.S. hopes to get the same cooperation from China on that country that it had received on North Korea, according to a senior administration official who described Obama's presentation of the issue as “forceful.”
The official acknowledged that Hu raised the tire issue.
After the meeting with Hu, Obama said he wanted to take the relationship between to the two countries to “a new level.”
“We need to make our relationship more dynamic and effective,” he said. Obama is scheduled to visit China in November.
Obama has also dealt with recent disappointments in the Middle East. The administration’s special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, returned to Washington last week empty-handed despite efforts to halt the building of Israeli settlements.
On Tuesday, Obama implored the leaders “to find a way forward.”
Palestinians must do more to “stop incitement,” Obama said in remarks before his meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas, while Israelis should take “real action” on restraining settlement activity. He also called on Arab states to take concrete steps to promote peace.
Obama’s critics say his difficulties stem from promising more than he can deliver. He is “discovering the art of diplomacy is far more difficult than winning a global popularity contest,” said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.
Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said Obama should get credit for pushing for grand goals, but advised him to also look for more modest victories.
“You don’t always have to swing for the fences in foreign policy,” O’Hanlon said.