KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — President Obama once professed that he was not comfortable with the theater of the presidency. But on his nine-day, three-country Asia tour that concluded here Sunday, Obama toggled between a pair of starkly different roles that served as a reminder that no modern-day president can succeed without being able to deliver convincing performances.
On one hand, there was the forceful, angry, sometimes defensive Obama rejecting the notion from his critics back in Washington that the world was on fire during his watch in the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris. On the other, there was the charming, optimistic, determinedly upbeat Obama selling the idea that the world stands to become a better place under American leadership.
The odd, bipolar tenor of the trip to Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia was predictable after Islamic State-affiliated terrorists killed 130 people in the French capital on Nov. 13, a day before he left Washington, and immediately upended his agenda. Although he had hoped to use the trip to tout progress on trade, climate change and maritime security, Obama was forced time and again to divert from his script to address the unfolding chaos in Europe and the rancorous political debate in Washington. And then switch back again.
The dichotomy was stark. Moments after denouncing Republican rhetoric over the treatment of Syrian refugees, for example, Obama took the stage in Manila for an appearance before Asian business leaders. He sat in a plush armchair and for an hour turned into President Oprah, interviewing Chinese billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma and a woman who invented a saltwater-powered lamp about their commitment to saving the environment.
“This is not like one of those infomercials, where you order it and you can’t make the thing work,” Obama insisted at one point of the lamp, drawing laughs from the audience. One might be forgiven, given the circumstances, of assuming he was talking about his own foreign policy.
At each stop, he jumped back and forth between crisis management and charm offensive. He huddled with Russian President Vladimir Putin for an intense 35-minute chat on their differing strategies to end the Syrian civil war at the Group of 20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey. He joked about not dying his hair like some of his fellow world leaders in an appearance with Canada’s youthful new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, 43, at an economic forum in Manila.
In the Philippines, he also donned the traditional “funny shirt” for a summit dinner, posing for a “family photo” with his global counterparts, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in matching off-white barong Tagalog shirts with gold embroidery.
“How about one wave?” Obama suggested, and the leaders posed awkwardly for the cameras.
A few days later, in Kuala Lumpur, Obama turned deadly serious as he denounced the Islamic State militant group as “killers with good social media” and pleaded with the American public not to give in to fear in the wake of the attacks in Paris and Mali that killed 150 people in all.
“The most powerful tool we have to fight ISIL is to say that we’re not afraid,” he said, using an acronym for the group. “To not elevate it to somehow buy into their fantasy they’re doing something important.”
In many respects, the week stood as a microcosm of the difficult juggling act that is required of the modern presidency on any given week — or, really, any given day. Like others before him, Obama routinely finds himself touting the need for important legislation, such as, say, comprehensive immigration reform — then, on the same day, attending a ceremonial event in the East Room such as, say, the feting of a championship sports team.
In the spring of 2011, Obama famously attended the White House correspondents’ dinner, dishing out stinging one-liners about his political adversaries and media gadflies while having covertly authorized, on the same day, a Special Forces mission to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
On that day, at least, he was successful on both counts.
It remains to be seen whether his visit to Asia was worth it. Since taking office, Obama has sought to re-balance U.S. foreign policy away from the wars in the Middle East toward other priorities, including climate change and a Pacific Rim trade pact, which he believes will be the defining issues of this century.
To that end, the president and his advisers placed a bet that following through on the trip, even as it took him out of Washington during the crux of the fallout from Paris, would pay long-term dividends.
“Earlier this week, as I headed to this region, I saw a headline in one of our publications back home that asked, ‘Obama’s Asian distraction?’ ” the president said at the start of his final news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. “The premise seemed to be this region was somehow disconnected from pressing global events. I could not disagree more. This region is not a distraction from the world’s central challenges, like terrorism. The Asia-Pacific is absolutely critical to promoting security, prosperity and human dignity around the world.”
By the end of the news conference, however, a weary-sounding Obama appeared ready to step off the stage and put an end, at least for the moment, to the show.
“All right,” Obama said, “let’s go home.”