NEW DELHI – Followed by the politics of home, President Barack Obama on Sunday acknowledged that he must make some "midcourse corrections" if he is to win over a frustrated electorate and work with resurgent Republicans.
On the second of the three days he is spending in India, Obama arrived in New Delhi on Sunday afternoon in the company of his wife, Michelle. Among his airport greeters were Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who apparently broke the normally rigid rules of protocol by making the trip to personally welcome Obama to the Indian capital.
Earlier in the day while in Mumbai, Obama appeared before college students eager to question him. He told one that the midterm elections back home reflected the "right, obligation and duty" of the voters to express their unhappiness with the state of U.S. affairs by voting out many incumbents, the majority of whom are Democrats like Obama.
The president himself wasn't on the ballot last week, but his party took a beating. Republicans won control of the House, eroded the Democratic majority in the Senate, made huge gains at the state level and broadly changed the political landscape as Obama begins looking ahead to his own re-election campaign in 2012.
Obama said he will not change his determination to move America forward by investing in education, infrastructure and clean energy despite mounting pressure in Washington to cut spending. But he said, without elaborating, that the election "requires me to make some midcourse corrections and adjustments."
How those will play out over the next several months, Obama said, will depend on his talks with Republicans. His comments seemed to reflect a deeper acknowledgment of the need for change by the White House, but as he did at a news conference the day after the election, Obama stayed purposely vague on how he would reposition his agenda.
The town hall with students, now a staple of Obama's foreign travel, was part of his outreach to this democracy of more than 1 billion people. India is an emerging power in Asia and an increasingly important partner to the U.S. on trade and security, in part because its rise offers a measure of balance to the growing strength of China.
The president is in the midst of his lengthiest trip abroad as president, a 10-day journey across India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan. He began Sunday by showing a softer side, chatting with students at another school and even dancing with them, albeit reluctantly, after his wife had eagerly done the same.
Obama took a range of questions from the students at St. Xavier College, a Jesuit institution, on a sweltering day. One young woman questioned him pointedly about U.S. support for Pakistan, asking why the U.S. had never deemed Pakistan a "terrorist state."
There were some murmurs from the audience. Obama said, "It's a good question and I must admit I was expecting it."
India is deeply suspicious of neighboring Pakistan as a threat to its security, with memories still fresh of a deadly terrorist shooting rampage in Mumbai in 2008, by Pakistani militants. Obama on Saturday spoke of U.S. solidarity with India in honoring those slain in that attack, but his failure to mention Pakistan angered some Indian commentators.
Pakistan, in turn, is as wary of India and sees India's ties with the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan as part of an effort by India to encircle it. The countries have fought three wars since 1947, but now engage in periodic peace talks.
Obama told the students the United States cannot impose peace on India and Pakistan. He defended U.S. support for Pakistan and said India is the country with the biggest stake in Pakistan's stability.
"So my hope is that over time, trust develops between the two countries, that dialogue begins ... and that both countries can prosper," the president said. "That will not happen tomorrow."
Obama also said he thinks Pakistan understands the potential terrorist threat lurking within its borders. Progress on eliminating that threat, however, has not been as quick as many would like, he said. Obama said the U.S. has reaffirmed its partnership with Pakistan along with its willingness to help the country stamp out terrorism.
Speaking in a stone courtyard to students who had waited for hours in the heat, Obama encouraged them to see themselves as future leaders. He questioned what they wanted India to become, and what they want from the United States, and told them they have the "possibility to make this planet a better place."
The president had time for just six questions, and scores of hands shot up each time he sought a new questioner. The questions were probing.
Asked for his views on jihad, Obama described Islam as a religion of peace and understanding, yet one that terrorists have sought to distort. "I think all of us have to fundamentally reject the notion that violence is a way to mediate our differences," he said.
Another student pressed him on enforcing selfishness and brotherhood over materialism. Obama defended what he called the "healthy materialism" of economic growth and corporate investment that can lift people out of poverty. "If all you're thinking about is material wealth," Obama said, "then I think that shows a poverty of ambition."
To a question about his policy toward Afghanistan, Obama said a "stable Afghanistan is achievable."
He reiterated his intent to begin removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan starting next July, based on conditions on the ground. He said he supported efforts by the Afghanistan government to reconcile with current and former Taliban members who agree to cut ties with al-Qaida, renounce violence and support the Afghan constitution.
Obama also reflected on the limits of his own success. He said he tries to follow the examples of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Mohandas K. Gandhi, particularly in making decisions that uphold the rights and dignity of people everywhere.
"It's not always apparent," he said, "that I'm making progress on that front."
Obama has a busy schedule planned in New Delhi. On Sunday, he and the first lady visited Humayun's Tomb, a majestic 16th century mausoleum similar in style to the Taj Mahal. On Monday, he was to hold a news conference with Singh and address India's parliament.
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