LIMA, Peru – Trying to tie up loose ends of his foreign policy agenda, President Barack Obama on Saturday instead found world leaders more focused on someone else: President-elect Donald Trump.
Global hand-wringing over America’s next president has taken much of the wind out of Obama’s final overseas trip. Adopting an altruistic tone, Obama has offered frequent reassurances that the U.S. won’t renege on its commitments. Yet he’s been at a loss to quell concerns fully, given new signals from Trump that he intends to govern much the way he campaigned.
Obama’s visit to Peru, the last stop on his trip, has brought those concerns to the forefront: Much of Latin America is on edge about a potentially dramatic shift in U.S. immigration policy under Trump. And Asian leaders gathered in Lima for an Asia-Pacific economic summit are trying to game out what Trump’s presidency will mean for trade with the world’s largest economy.
“We’re going to have a busy agenda,” Obama said as he sat down with leaders of countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sweeping free trade deal with Asia that Obama painstakingly brokered.
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It was unclear whether their agenda was really as busy as all that. Vehemently opposed to the Pacific agreement and similar deals, Trump has vowed it won’t be ratified on his watch. In an acknowledgement of that political reality, the White House has stopped actively lobbying Congress to try to pass it.
In fact, Obama didn’t mention the trade deal at all as reporters were allowed in briefly for the beginning of his meeting with TPP nations, which include Mexico, Chile, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. Instead, Obama called it a useful occasion to talk about creating jobs, opportunity and prosperity.
To be sure, any president would have less to discuss with other leaders in the final months than when years of governing stretch ahead. Obama’s typically jam-packed schedule on foreign trips has been notably lighter on this trip, with long stretches of downtime. Yet Trump’s election, with the sharp shift in approach it’s expected to bring, has put a spotlight on Obama’s lame-duck status.
Obama has made it a tradition to attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. His attendance this year was designed to reinforce the importance of that venue, even though it’s unlikely at this stage of his presidency he will secure any new major agreements with other countries or shift direction in any major ways.
His visit also offered a chance for a round of farewell meetings, including with President Xi Jinping of China, a sometimes U.S. rival. Xi commended Obama for “active efforts” to grow U.S.-China ties. Obama, with just a hint of nostalgia, noted it was their last meeting, and called the two countries’ relationship the most consequential in the world.
Before returning to Washington, Obama will sit down Sunday with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He also will participate in a pull-aside with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama’s chief antagonist on the world stage, was also in Lima, but the White House did not expect them to have any substantive interaction.
By this point, Obama has come to terms with the fact that his remaining weeks in office will be overshadowed by the provocative businessman who soon moves into the home Obama’s family now occupies. In Greece and Germany, the first two stops on his trip, Obama was similarly trailed by questions about Trump and whether he’ll really follow through with threats he leveled during the campaign, such as potentially refusing to defend NATO allies who don’t pay enough of the alliance’s costs.
Obama’s message to young leaders at a town hall-style meeting in Lima was sanguine: “Don’t assume the worst.”
“I think it will be important for everybody around the world to not make immediate judgments, but give this new president-elect a chance to put their team together, to examine the issues, to determine what their policies will be,” Obama said. “How you campaign is not always how you govern.”
So far, while Trump has vowed to run a unifying administration, he’s given few indications he plans to abandon his campaign promises.
Those hoping for a more moderate Trump 2.0 have been disappointed by his first selections for top jobs: Rep. Mike Pompeo, a fierce critic of Obama’s Iran deal, for CIA director; retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, an advocate for closer ties to Russia and a more militant response to Mideast extremism, for national security adviser; and Sen. Jeff Sessions, an immigration hardliner, for attorney general.
Trump’s protectionist stance on trade was clearly on the minds of other leaders attending the economic conference.
Xi, speaking before his meeting with Obama, made an impassioned call against protectionism as Chinese state media said Trump’s trade-bashing could drag the world into “deeper economic distress.” Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto defended his country’s trade relationship with the U.S., but took a cautious approach to Trump’s pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“In the face of Trump’s positioning, we’re now in a stage of favoring dialogue as a way to build a new agenda in our bilateral relationship,” Pena Nieto said.