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Keith B. Richburg: Facing 'pathological hatred' at home, Obama may find he can still lead during his Asia tour

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President Barack Obama faces reporters in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 5.   © Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Asia this week a damaged leader, weakened at home after midterm elections saw his Democratic Party rejected across the board and, most crucially, his Republican opponents take control of the Senate for the first time since 2007.

     For Asia's leaders meeting with Obama in various forums this month, the question is just how damaged and weak?

     Can the president still deliver on his promises when facing a new and hostile Senate? Can the U.S. still be counted on to provide leadership in the Asia-Pacific region as the economies of Europe and elsewhere are slowing? And can the U.S. still project strength in the region amid rising tensions with an ascendant China?

Prophet without honor

"The question in the backs of the minds of many of the leaders he will meet in Asia will be, how badly the loss has dented his presidency," said Murray Hiebert, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank. "The ball will be in Obama's court to demonstrate he can still lead on foreign policy."

      Obama, making his first stop in China for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, made no public reference to his political setback at home. He did try to reassure America's Asian allies, saying, "There should be no doubt that the United States of America remains entirely committed when it comes to Asia" and that the U.S. was "not just here in Asia to check a box."

     In Beijing, Obama announced an agreement with China to eliminate tariffs on a range of high-tech products, and a separate deal with China to allow tourists and business travelers to stay in each other's country for longer periods. But in the U.S., media coverage of the summit was still largely overshadowed by reporting on the new political order taking shape since the Democrats' election rout.

     If Obama can take any solace, it is this: Since his historic election victory in 2008, his standing overseas has always been higher than his middling poll ratings back home. This is particularly so in Asia, since the Hawaii-born Obama has styled himself as "America's first Pacific president." In Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood, Obama is still treated as something of a rock star.

     There are several causes for the disconnect -- admired abroad, disrespected at home. To understand the phenomenon, it is important to delve deeper into the midterm election results to discern why a significant bloc of voters has always viewed this president as illegitimate, dangerous or, in some circles, literally the Antichrist.

     There is no way to downplay the depth and breadth of the Nov. 4 repudiation. Republicans won most of the competitive open Senate seats in play, and managed to knock off incumbent Democratic senators in Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado, Alaska and possibly Louisiana, which is heading to a runoff.

     How could a president who was solidly re-elected in 2012 with 51.1% of the vote find his party and policies so thoroughly rejected only two years later? And why would voters turn against him when the U.S. economy, which grew at an annual 3.5% pace in the third quarter, appears to have largely recovered from the economic crisis he inherited?

     First, there are the macro issues beyond the president's immediate control, a confluence of crises: Russian adventurism in Ukraine; the rise of Islamic State militants and the televised beheadings of U.S. citizens; and the deadly Ebola virus touching American soil. All of these sharpened voters' anxieties.

     Second, there was widespread disgust at Washington's political gridlock. Much of this was due to the determined obstructionism of his Republican opponents in Congress, who refused even to schedule votes on key pieces of Obama-backed legislation, including immigration reform, and did not allow up-or-down votes to confirm a raft of Obama appointments, including more than 30 ambassadorships. But whoever is to blame, voters held Obama responsible, as president, for the logjam and blamed him for the failure to either compromise with Republicans (as the right wing wants), or to use his presidential muscle to roll over the opposition (as his Democratic supporters would wish).

     Third, there was the vehemence of Obama's opponents in trying to tear him down -- an almost pathological hatred in some quarters of this president known as Obama Derangement Syndrome. This is one of the least-examined factors at play, but it goes a long way toward explaining what happened to the Democrats on Nov. 4.

Tough audience

Obama won in 2008 as the first African-American president, and the first urban liberal president since John F. Kennedy, mainly because of his unique ability to grow the pool of voters and reach those who traditionally stay home on election day -- black Americans, Hispanics, young voters and unmarried working women.

     But those are precisely the voters who do not normally turn up for midterm elections. This pattern was also apparent in the 2010 midterms, when an older, whiter, more conservative electorate handed the Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives. Exit polls in the most recent election showed three-quarters of the voters were white. And young people aged 18 to 29 made up a mere 13% of the electorate, way down from 2012, when Obama was re-elected and young people accounted for nearly 20% of the votes cast.

     The resistance to Obama has always been strongest among white voters, particularly white male voters in the South. Democrats suffered heavy losses in places they thought they had a chance -- Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia. Those are parts of the old Confederacy, places where Obama's approval ratings are dismal, states Mitt Romney carried in 2012 and where opposition to a black president and his policies has been strongest.

     Most politicians and analysts prefer to tiptoe around the question of the racial dimension of Obama Derangement Syndrome, and the few who have dared speak out are immediately chastised.

     West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who retired, created a firestorm back in May when he said opposition to Obama's signature health care law was partly due to his race. "Maybe he's of the wrong color, something of that sort," Rockefeller said. "I've seen a lot of that and I know a lot of that to be true. It's not something you're meant to talk about in public, but it's something I'm talking about in public because that is very true."

     In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu, who now faces stiff odds in a runoff, was hammered by Republican politicians and the far-right media when she said in October: "I'll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It's been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader."

     Many black voters accepted that truth from the time Obama first took office. It was what fueled the racist questions about whether he was born in the U.S. It was what blacks saw behind the unprecedented outburst during Obama's State of the Union speech when a conservative South Carolina congressman interrupted the speech, shouting, "You lie!" It was what lay behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's thinly veiled, racially charged attack on Obama as "the food stamp president."

Home field disadvantage

Abroad, Obama has been widely praised and admired -- largely for not being George W. Bush. Obama ended America's war in Iraq; he has taken the first (belated) steps to combat climate change; he acknowledged the importance of working multilaterally through the United Nations and other international organizations. He is cerebral and contemplative, not prone to overheated cowboy rhetoric.

     The same qualities that overseas audiences find appealing are what so infuriates his critics at home. Those critics have delivered their verdict at the midterm ballot box.

     Obama can be thankful he is visiting countries where he is likely to be more appreciated. The question is, can he still lead?

     My bet is Obama can still make an impact, even as a lame duck. Presidents have more leeway in foreign policy, and in their final years often find a haven in international affairs. With congressional Republicans now likely to block any new Obama initiatives on the domestic front, the president might find himself liberated, and able to pursue the "Asian pivot" that has proven elusive so far. And overseas, the Obama Derangement Syndrome is much less virulent.

Keith B. Richburg was the Washington Post's bureau chief in Manila, Nairobi, Hong Kong, Paris and Beijing, and was the paper's foreign editor from 2005 to 2007. He is currently writing a book about China.

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