WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is darting off to Southeast Asia to showcase a foreign policy achievement and reinforce the U.S. role as a counterweight to China.
Obama leaves today for a four-day trip to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, his first trip abroad since June and his fourth to Asia, where he has been eager to expand the U.S. footprint. It's a brief break from dicey fiscal negotiations and a national security sex scandal that are competing with the glow of his re-election.
Freed from the constraints of campaigning, Obama is quickly re-establishing his foreign policy credentials by being the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma, which was internationally shunned for decades and is now hailed for its steps toward democratization.
Obama is also attending the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, eager to secure the U.S.'s place as a major player in a region that long has operated under China's influence. The trip underscores Obama's goal of establishing the United States as an Asian-Pacific power, a worldview defined by 21st-century geopolitics but also by Obama's personal identity as America's first Pacific president. Obama was born in Hawaii.
The White House sees the trip in historic terms, in no small part because of the breakthrough with Myanmar, but also because of its broader strategic significance.
"Continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of this president's second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy," said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
In choosing this time to travel -- the East Asia Summit was scheduled some time ago -- Obama is taking advantage of his electoral success, and his international counterparts are bound to be in a congratulatory mood.
But Obama also heads out at a sensitive time for the U.S. economy. Only six weeks remain before automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts kick in that could set back the economy if Obama and congressional Republicans don't find agreement on a deficit reduction plan.
Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush, cautioned that failure by Washington to resolve the so-called fiscal cliff could signal to emerging economies that the democratic system is flawed.
"That's why countries are flirting with this notion that maybe China has it right: State capitalism plus keeping your people in line," he recently told the World Affairs Councils of America. "That is very destructive."