Obama Tries to Forge Connections in Asia

U.S. President Barack Obama, center, stands with other APEC leaders for a group photograph following their evening dinner Singapore, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
AP Photo/Thibault Camus
President Obama is in Singapore on his first trip to Asia, which he hopes will send a powerful message. At each stop, the President is emphasizing his personal roots in the Pacific region and stressing the need for cooperation between the United States and the Asian powers, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Chip Reid from Singapore.

The President's popularity was on display in Singapore as he greeted the leaders of Asian Pacific nations wearing the colorful shirts that are a tradition at this annual economic conference.

Obama attempted to further ingratiate himself in this part of the world in a speech in Tokyo yesterday. He told the crowd that he is one of them, citing his upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii.

"As America's first Pacific president, I promise you that this Pacific nation will strengthen and sustain our leadership in this vitally important part of the world," he said.

Obama also said his primary goal on this trip is to get help for American workers.

"For America this is a jobs strategy," he said.

The President hopes to nudge Asian countries to buy more American goods, thereby creating jobs in the U.S.

But critics say turning popularity into accomplishments won't be easy because the President is bringing nothing to the table at this conference.

"One of the things that the President will find most awkward is he'll be the only leader in the region who is not moving forward with some kind of trade arrangement," said Mike Green, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There are 168 free trade agreements in Asia and another 88 in the works, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But the United States has only two, with Singapore and Australia.

Critics say the President has not made trade a priority because of opposition from organized labor whose support he needs for items at the top of his agenda: health care reform and climate change legislation.

On Sunday, Obama will face the biggest challenge of the trip when he heads to China. He's expected to encourage China to open its markets to American goods, but he has virtually no leverage. China largely controls this economic relationship because it has become America's banker, holding nearly a trillion dollars in U.S. debt.

But before the President leaves for China he will confront one other major challenge. On Sunday he'll meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to continue slow-moving negotiations on a nuclear arms treaty. Officials say no breakthrough is expected.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.