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Obama exercises his powers on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation trip

Obama exercises his powers on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation trip
World leaders at the APEC summit in Beijing include Brunei Sultan Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, left; Russian President Vladimir Putin; Chinese President Xi Jinping, with wife Peng Liyuan; and President Obama. (Michael Klimentyev / AFP/Getty Images)

With the efficacy of his presidency in question, President Obama began a weeklong trip to Asia and Australia seemingly bent on demonstrating the tools still at his disposal.

Within hours of landing in China on Monday for an economic summit, Obama took credit for the release of two Americans detained in North Korea, defended his decision to send more military trainers to Iraq, vowed to expand trade with Asia and unilaterally extended the life of U.S. visas held by Chinese students, businesspeople and tourists.

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"We're not going to stop speaking out on behalf of the things that we care about," Obama told reporters in Beijing, promising to use his platform during the last two years of his presidency to support democratic reforms in Chinese-controlled Hong Kong and around the world.

Given the international setting, Obama's use of "we" ostensibly referred to Americans, but his comment also echoed vows he has made to use the power of his office to act on issues where Republicans in Congress won't.

Obama doesn't need congressional approval to send more military trainers to help Iraqi fighters take on Islamic State militants, as he did shortly before leaving for Asia. He can also press for the release of Americans being held overseas, such as the two who returned home from North Korea over the weekend, accompanied by the administration's top intelligence official, James R. Clapper.

"The president's view is if we have an opportunity to bring two Americans home, reunite with them their families, remove the final Americans who are in detention in North Korea, that that's an opportunity we should take," a senior administration official said.

Many presidents in the latter days of their time in office have turned to the world stage, finding influence there even as they become less influential in domestic politics.

President Reagan traveled to the Berlin Wall and called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down. President Clinton helped conclude a historic peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

Obama on Monday spoke in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, even though he's trying to work out agreements on climate and other areas with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"There are certain things the United States believes: We believe in freedom of speech, we believe in freedom of association, we believe in openness in government," Obama said. "We don't expect China to follow an American model in every instance. But we're going to continue to have concerns about human rights."

Obama, who plans to overhaul the U.S. immigration system this year by executive order, extended visas for Chinese businesspeople who hold one-year passes to enter and leave the U.S. The extension means those visa holders may come and go for 10 years, a change American business leaders have been asking for to help open trade channels between the two countries.

Obama has also been negotiating trade deals, another priority for American businesses, but the long-sought Trans-Pacific Partnership still hasn't come together, administration officials said Monday. The free-trade agreement involving a dozen countries is part of the administration's plan to exert greater influence in the Asia-Pacific region and reassure allies regarding China's economic and military power.

Obama's ability to finalize a trade deal may improve his standing with Republicans at the helm in Congress. GOP leaders are generally more supportive of trade pacts, and that may empower administration negotiators on other issues in the coming months.

For his part, Xi is eager to use the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to burnish his standing as a global statesman both for his domestic audience and an international one. Obama's participation is key; he skipped the last several annual APEC gatherings, and it's his first visit to China since the first year of his presidency, 2009.

China is mindful that Obama will be hamstrung by the GOP-controlled Congress during the rest of his term. Xi, who assumed the Chinese presidency last year, is expected to serve until 2023. That may lead to a disconnect in the two sides' priorities.

"From the U.S. side, the focus is more case by case, issue by issue. On the Chinese side, it's more general; there's a focus more on principles," said Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at People's University.

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"China is focused on the future, whereas the U.S. is more focused on the current challenges because President Obama has only two years remaining in power," he said. "But President Xi can think about eight years at least."

Looming over the relationship is a sense that China is catching up to the U.S. by many measures. China's gross domestic product is No. 2 in the world, though it's significantly behind the U.S.

"The larger question hanging over this trip is whether a diminished Obama can revive U.S. strategic leadership in the Asia Pacific," said David Dollar, a former Treasury official in the Obama administration who is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "And I think an important part of this strategic leadership is economics, trade and investment."

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