Is Obama going to be the first Asian American US President?


Is Barack Obama the first Asian president of the United States? (JG Graphic) 

It is sometimes said that Bill Clinton was the first black president of the United States, such was his popularity among the black electorate. So by the same token, is Obama, in his second term, going to become the first Asian president of the US? With the overwhelming endorsement of Asian-American citizens, his first trip to Asia already undertaken this term and his foreign policy tilt toward the East, this may not be as strange as it sounds.

Somewhat overlooked when analyzing the results of the 2012 US presidential elections, was the extent to which Asian-Americans backed Obama. The figure was up to 73 percent; surpassing the Latino and female vote. Romney’s China-bashing was ill-received, and seat uncomfortably with Asian-Americans. Attacking China as an economic cheat served only to raise fears among Asian-Americans, thereby alienating this group of voters.

Asian-Americans make up 3.4 percent of the national electorate, and it is estimated by some that by 2050, this figure will rise to 10 percent. In states like California, it could be at least 20 percent from the present 11 percent. So the Asian-American vote is growing and its potential should not be underestimated.

Obama’s appeal to the average Asian-American is mirrored by a wider global appeal, illustrated well by Pew Research and the fact that much of the world cheered the November re-election of Obama. This support was not necessarily be seen as an endorsement of US foreign policy. In particular there is still widespread opposition to US drone strikes as part of his anti-terrorism policy; his failure to meet expectations that he would tackle climate change; and crucially his failure to position the US as a more even-handed broker between Israel and Palestine. Yet, his popularity in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, is undented.

His relationship with South Asian countries is, however, more complex. In 2009, in Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, people hoped he would be different from the administration of George W. Bush. But after Obama’s winning of a second term in the White House, his popularity in these countries has never been lower. In Indonesia he enjoys massive popularity; this is not surprising considering that Obama has placed a lot of importance on relations with this Muslim-majority country. As for relations with China, this is likely to evolve into a working but competitive one, particularly in the context of wider Asia geopolitics, as illustrated by his trip to Myanmar.

So what should we make of his recent trip to Myanmar? It was part of a three-leg tour which also took in Thailand and Cambodia for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference in mid-November. This made him the first US president to visit Myanmar and meet President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy movement.

The White House itself has spoken of a “pivot” toward Asia, as the Americans’ strategic focus becomes the fast-growing Asian countries, away from war and terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Clearly this trip to Myanmar reflects a watershed in policy and focus following the importance the US has placed on normalizing relations with Myanmar. For the US, this represents an opportunity to have a greater stake in the region, partly to counter the influence of China.

Interestingly, in his book “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” academic and journalist Robert Kaplan observes the following:

“In short, Burma [Myanmar] provides a code for understanding the world to come. It is a prize to be fought over, as China and India are doing so right now. Recognizing the importance of what Burma and its neighbors represent at a time of new energy pathways, unstable fuel prices, and seaboard natural disasters. … For the US, Indian Ocean states like Burma are now, or should be, central to their calculations.”

Importantly, he wrote this well before Obama’s re-election, so clearly someone is listening in the State Department.

Further, Kaplan, based on his knowledge of the State Department, argues that the appointment of special envoys for Israel-Palestine; Afghanistan-Pakistan, and North Korea, will free up the US secretary of state to concentrate on the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions. Structurally at least, the State Department is now better organized then it has been for some time to respond to a rising India and China. Indeed John Kerry, the newly appointed secretary of state, should consider himself fortunate to be taking over at such a time of freed-up resources within the State Department.

So, Asians both in the US and abroad are set to have even more dealings with Obama in his second term. He is naturally more in tune with the region — having lived in Indonesia in his formative years and by having an Asian half-sister. This backdrop inevitably acts to make him culturally more approachable and appealing to the Asian electorate. The future of American power lies in the East; this notion is strengthened by the re-election of President Obama, who has already made a clear play for Asia. Based on recent policy and the apparent lean toward Asia, it looks as though Obama himself would have little trouble being perceived as the first Asian US president.

This blog was published as an article in the Jakarta Globe on the 31st of  January 2013.

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