WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is leaving the fallout from the Democrats' election drubbing behind as he heads for India and what's likely to be a friendlier reception in the world's largest democracy.
The president was to depart Friday morning on Air Force One for Mumbai, India, where he was to arrive around noon local time Saturday after refueling in Germany. It's the first stop on a 10-day tour through India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, the longest foreign outing of Obama's presidency.
Obama's trip aims to seek out economic benefit for the U.S., but advisers are also emphasizing his decision to visit four vibrant and growing democracies. It's an itinerary meant to reinforce support for democratic values at a time when the U.S. commitment to human rights worldwide has sometimes come into question.
The president returns to the U.S. Nov. 14, a day ahead of a lame-duck congressional session in which the president will have to scratch for compromise with emboldened Republicans on extending Bush-era tax cuts, among other issues.
The Asia trip is anchored by must-attend gatherings of world leaders in South Korea and Japan. The timing is unconnected to Tuesday's midterm elections, but this week's Democratic bloodletting is sure to dog Obama to the other side of the world. He'll be meeting with growing powers certain to be keenly aware they're dealing with a newly weakened president backed by a divided Congress, its repercussions uncertain.
The trip to India is Obama's first to the burgeoning nation of 1.2 billion, a huge and growing trading partner where U.S. officials see infinite potential. The president is spending three days there, dividing his time between Mumbai, the financial center on the coast of the Arabian Sea, and the capital of New Delhi. It's the longest single stretch he's spent in any foreign country, a point U.S. officials are careful to emphasize.
"The primary purpose is to take a bunch of U.S. companies and open up markets so that we can sell in Asia, in some of the fastest-growing markets in the world, and we can create jobs here in the United States," Obama told reporters Thursday. "And my hope is, is that we've got some specific announcements that show the connection between what we're doing overseas and what happens here at home when it comes to job growth and economic growth."
The president will meet with U.S. and Indian business leaders, and the White House hopes some commercial deals will be finalized, possibly including purchases of Boeing aircraft by India. The U.S. also will be pushing for more favorable terms for U.S. exports. Obama often criticizes U.S. companies that outsource jobs overseas, but the president will have to address that topic delicately or not at all if he's to avoid troubling his hosts in a nation that's become associated in some U.S. minds with the call centers where people are routed for help with computer problems or airline miles.
The abbreviated stop in Indonesia, where Obama lived with his mother and Indonesian stepfather between ages 6 and 10, was previously canceled and rescheduled twice, first because of final talks on the health care bill and then because of the Gulf oil spill.
This time Obama will spend less than 24 hours in the country and won't be visiting any old friends or childhood haunts; the White House says there's no time for that.
The president, who will be accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama for the first part of the trip, is squeezing in some sightseeing, including a visit to the enormous Istiqlal Mosque in Indonesia, a Great Buddha statue in Japan and the Gandhi museum in Mumbai. He opted against visiting the famed Golden Temple Sikh holy site in India, though White House officials denied rumors that it was because he would have had to wear a head covering that could have stirred false speculation that he's a Muslim.
The president's popularity overseas has mostly held steady even as it's waned at home, and he's making a point to engage with the populace along the way. He's meeting with schoolchildren and holding a town hall for college students in India and speaking to a large, open crowd in Indonesia.
U.S. economic concerns will be front and center at a summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Seoul, South Korea, followed by a meeting in Yokohama, Japan, of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Obama hopes to be able to announce concrete progress on a Korea free trade agreement, which has long been stalled in Congress primarily because of opposition from Democratic lawmakers over barriers to sales of U.S. autos in Korea. A more heavily Republican Congress could be more amenable to the deal.
Also high on the agenda is controversy over how China values its currency, with many in the U.S. contending it's artificially low to keep Chinese exports cheap. Obama will meet at the G-20 with Chinese President Hu Jintao, but officials say they don't expect the currency issue to be resolved.
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