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Tortured Seoul: Obama's G20 isolation

Mark Mardell | 15:53 UK time, Friday, 12 November 2010

President Barack Obama at the G20 in Seoul

The rather disappointing, at least low-key, outcome to the G20 adds to the sense of a president beleaguered and diminished.

The well-respected Washington Post even suggests Mr Obama failed to get a much-prized free trade deal with South Korea because of his party's "shellacking" in the mid-term elections. This is almost certainly nonsense, but a sign of the times.

The president even had to answer a question about whether the elections at home had undermined his power abroad. He said:

The answer is no. I think what we've seen over the last several days as we've travelled through Asia is that people are eager to work with America, eager to engage with America on economic issues, on security issues, on a whole range of mutual interests.

Fair enough. But it is true that a mere 18 months ago the president would probably have been handed any trade treaty he wanted, with extra sprinkles and birthday candles on top, just by flashing a smile. He is no longer the superstar who leaves other world leaders star-struck, but another mortal with one eye on the polls.

Leaders of democracies can be quick to sympathise with each other about the awkward matter of a tricky electorate and the distractions of the home front.

But Mr Obama's decrease in popularity at home is not matched by a robust admiration for his economic policy on the world stage. Far from it. It was only a few months ago at the G20 in Toronto that Mr Obama's failure was his inability to persuade other countries to join him in a new stimulus package. At the time I described him as "the last Keynesian standing".

Since then it has got worse for him. Other countries, most notably the UK, are wielding the knife, busy balancing the books, cutting the deficit - in fact, doing what the president's domestic opposition says he should do.

The vague agreement aimed at stopping currency wars does not really quantitatively ease Germany and China's distress at the Fed printing more money. Nor does it lessen Mr Obama's irritation that they are not buying more American goods.

I happen to believe that talking is better than not, mild agreement is better than sniping, and some sort of global consensus is better than leaders sitting in their capitals, glowering at each other and refusing to pick up the phone.

It would be a weird and perhaps not so wonderful world if they could all agree on a single economic policy. So this is hard, serious stuff.

But there's some irony that the leader of the richest and most powerful country in the world finds himself rather isolated, just like his predecessor, if for utterly different reasons. It sure is lonely at the top.

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