Popular Diplomacy

The press pretends to be surprised that Obama's charm didn't work wonders in Asia

As media narratives go, this whole “Barack Obama is a popular individual and a gifted speaker with a compelling personal story, but doesn’t automatically get everything he wants!” thing is getting awfully old, awfully fast.

The theme popped up months ago, when the press began to notice that though America had elected a “change” president, the world was—surprise!—not changing overnight. It cropped up again around the time of the off-year elections, when the media noticed that Obama’s personal appeal is not a magical amulet that can be transferred to unpopular Democrats. And it has framed much of the coverage of Obama’s recently completed trip to Asia.

For example, here’s the lede of a recent story from the Los Angeles Times:

When it came to China, President Obama’s famous powers of persuasion failed to persuade.

Meanwhile, a news analysis from The New York Times offers this:

But Mr. Obama quickly discovered that popularity on the Asian streets did not necessarily translate into policy successes behind closed doors in the Kantei, the Japanese White House, let alone in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

And, from The Washington Post, we get this:

The Seoul stop was the last on a trip that has notably lacked concrete achievements but has seen Obama’s personal narrative on full display, as he reminisced about the ice cream he ate during a childhood visit to Japan, invoked his “historic ties” to Indonesia and recalled his mother’s work in the villages of Southeast Asia. After more than a week of using his biography to connect to audiences in Asia — perhaps the last corner of the globe where he had yet to take his story — Obama appeared as popular as ever among ordinary citizens in the region.

But is his biography-as-diplomacy approach beginning to show its limits?

If it were clear that Obama is pursuing a “biography-as-diplomacy” approach, this question might be pressing. And, if he were pursuing a strategy that rested primarily on his public appeal or his silver tongue, the observations from the NYT and LAT would be more significant, too. But, since evidence that he’s doing so is slight, this sort of frame comes off as more trite than trenchant.

In politics, it is helpful to be liked. Barack Obama is a generally well-liked person, and when he goes abroad, he often emphasizes personal traits that may endear him to other people. He is also eloquent, and he attempts to use that eloquence to his advantage. This makes sense. It is the sort of thing that should encourage people, at the margins, to be more favorably disposed to what he has to say.

At the same time, it would be foolish to think that the advantages that accrue from personal appeal outweigh, say, voters’ considered opinions on their home-state governor, or a foreign leadership’s judgment about its national interests. China’s leaders are not going to adjust their currency policy, or their approach to Tibet, unless they come to believe that, for one reason or another, it is in their best interests. America has less leverage than it once did to coerce such changes (though it’s not as if China has never said no before), and Obama is not some Svengali who can trick foreign countries into serving American interests.

The president and his team apparently recognize this, which helps to explain why Obama has been employing a strategy that differs from any of his predecessors’. But its most significant feature is not a reliance on personal appeal but a mix of upbeat, respectful public gestures—what the AP has called “pragmatic humility”—with, if administration officials are telling the truth, frank talk behind closed doors. In the long run, this approach may or may not succeed. (Politico’s Mike Allen seems just about ready to judge it a failure, and one that risks making Obama look like a sucker and a wimp to boot.) But it is the one the president is using.

And the thing is, journalists recognize this. Political journalists know how politics and diplomacy actually work, and they know that the global balance of power is shifting (indeed, that was one of the other recurring themes in the coverage). So, in all likelihood, they are not actually surprised that Barack Obama has failed to “fix” the issues surrounding America’s relationship with China by sheer force of personality. This sort of frame constructs and takes apart a straw man: “If you don’t think much about this stuff you might have expected big news on this trip, but guess what—you were wrong!”

Fair enough, but isn’t it a reporter’s job to explain how the world really works, not just to reinforce lazy notions? It would have been much more interesting—and honest—to frame the story like this: “No big news was made, but we shouldn’t have expected it. As for long-term ramifications, here’s Obama’s plan, and here’s his timeline. What will he have to do in order to accomplish his goals? What are the odds that he will accomplish them? How might this trip pay benefits—or create risks—down the road?”

It is no indictment of Barack Obama that his personal charms did not sway Chinese policy. It’s a minor indictment of the media that they feigned surprise at that outcome.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.