YOKOHAMA, Japan – President Barack Obama appealed to Asian leaders Saturday for greater access to fast-growing markets, proclaiming "the United States is here to stay" and saying its prosperity is tied inextricably to the success of its Pacific trading partners.
"America is leading again in Asia," Obama told a gathering of chief executives at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, stressing anew his goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years. "For America, this is a jobs strategy," the president said. "In this region, the United States sees a huge opportunity to increase our exports in some of the fastest-growing markets in the world."
At the same time, Obama said that healthy competition need not cause ruptures in relationships between and among nations.
"There's no need to view trade, commerce or economic growth as zero sum games, where one country always has to prosper at the expense of another," the president said. "The story of Asia over the last few decades is the story of change so rapid and transformative that it may be without precedent in human history," Obama added.
While recognizing the spectacular economic growth in Asia, Obama said, "We want to get back to doing what America has always been known for: discovering, creating, and building the products that are sold all over the world."
His speech came on his first full day in Japan, following a divisive G-20 summit in Seoul where he failed to win the backing of other international leaders for a get-tough policy toward China over on its currency stance and also missed his goal of reaching agreement with longtime ally South Korea on a new free-trade pact.
But Obama told his audience he was pleased that the U.S. lead was followed in Seoul on the agreement by his summit partners on the development of a system of greater monitoring to help countries avoid the conditions and practices that caused the near-economic meltdown two years ago.
A defensive Obama had taken exception Friday to questions about whether his personal leadership or U.S. influence on the world stage — or both — had deteriorated. And he heard heavy criticism from some G-20 summit quarters over a decision by the Federal Reserve Board to buy up $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds, in a step that some likened to the sort of currency manipulation Washington has accused Beijing of pursuing.
In his speech to the CEOs, Obama chose to focus on progress he made on this 10-day Asia tour, his longest overseas trip since becoming president.
"Over the course of this trip," he said, "we've made progress toward our export goals." But he said more needs to be done.
"The United States is looking to expand trade and commerce throughout the Asia-Pacific," he said. "Even though our exports to this region have risen by more than 60 percent over the last five years, our overall share of trade in the region has declined in favor of our competitors."
"We want to change that," the president said. "We don't want to lose the opportunity to sell our goods in services in fast-growing markets."
"The United States is here to stay," he said. "We are invested in your success."
Obama earlier sought to minimize discord at Seoul over U.S. policy, saying not every summit can be a game-changer.
"Instead of hitting home runs, sometimes we're going to hit singles," the president said. "But they're really important singles."
Obama pointed to a consensus by 20 powerhouse and emerging economies on plans for a balanced economy, with the makings of a system to track and prevent unhealthy trade deficits and surpluses, an initiative that lacks enforcement.
Obama answered "No" when asked at a news conference if the stinging results of the midterm elections diminished his clout abroad.
"People are eager to work with America, eager to engage with America," he said. Obama said the meetings strengthened relationships with presidents and prime ministers in ways not apparent from superficial photo ops served up at such gatherings.
"It's not just a function of personal charm," the president said. "It's a function of countries' interests and seeing if we can work through to align them."
Obama started his Asia trip in the aftermath of a political battering at home, as Republicans recaptured the House and significantly cut the Democratic majority in the Senate. His meetings at the APEC forum were his last before he heads back.
In defending his standing at home and abroad, complaining about the media's focus on drama and discord, and asserting that more is being achieved than meets the eye, Obama sounded very much like presidents of the past who were trying to climb back into the game.
Bill Clinton asserted his "relevance" in 1995 after devastating midterm losses; George W. Bush declared he was "engaged" and "relevant" in 2007 when his approval ratings had hit bottom in the months after his party lost control of Congress.
So on Friday, Obama used every opportunity to show command at his news conference. He often challenged the premise of questions and embraced the chance to "provide my own interpretation" of events.
He poked fun at one reporter who asked him what advice, complaint or concern he heard at the meetings about his handling of the economy. "What about compliments?" Obama asked. "You didn't put that in the list."
More seriously, he said the reason the United States attracted dissent was because it was pushing for tough, balanced economic changes that made other nations worry about losing ground.
"That resistance is natural," he said. "It arises out of the fact that the U.S. is showing leadership."
The mission of creating jobs for Americans was at the heart of Obama's trip to Asia. Job growth has been modest at best after a crippling recession in which millions of jobs were lost. The unemployment rate has been at 9.5 percent or higher for the last 15 months.
Obama refused to say whether it would still be in that range when he runs for re-election in 2012, but he pushed back when asked if people are going to be seeing noticeable job growth in his entire four-year term.
"We've grown the economy by a million jobs over the last year," Obama said. "So that's pretty noticeable. I think those million people who've been hired notice those paychecks."