Mumbai:Nearly halfway through his term, President Barack Obama on Sunday acknowledged that he must make some “midcourse corrections” if he is going to win over a frustrated electorate and work with empowered Republicans.
Speaking on an economic tour of Asian nations, Obama told college students in Mumbai that the midterm elections back home reflected the “right, obligation and duty” of people to express their unhappiness by voting out many incumbents.
The president himself wasn’t on the ballot last week, but his Democratic 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 positions himself for his own re-election campaign in 2012.
Obama said he will not change his determination to invest money in education, infrastructure and clean energy at a time when the pressures in Washington are to slash spending. But he said the election “requires me to make some midcourse corrections and adjustments.”
He said how those will play out over the next several months will depend on his talks with Republicans. His comments seemed to reflect a deeper acknowledgment of the need to make course corrections from 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 US 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 a different school and even getting up to dance with them, albeit reluctantly, after his wife, Michelle, 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 in this financial hub. When a young woman challenged him on US support of Pakistan, Obama said, “I must admit I expected it.”
India is deeply suspicious of neighboring Pakistan as a threat to its security, with memories still fresh of a terrorist shooting rampage in Mumbai in 2008, at the hand of Pakistani militants. Obama on Saturday spoke of US solidarity with India in honoring those slain in that attack, but his lack of any mention of Pakistan angered some India commentators.
Pakistan, in turn, is as wary of India and sees India’s ties with the US-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.
To the students, Obama said the United States cannot impose peace on India and Pakistan. But he tried to challenge the students’ thinking, defending US support of Pakistan and saying the country with the biggest stake in Pakistan’s stability is India.
“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 US 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 hours in the heat to hear him, Obama encouraged the young people to see themselves as future leaders. He questioned what they wanted India to become, and what they want from the United States.
“Some of the challenges may be incredibly hard,” Obama said. “In the face of darkness, we may get discouraged. But we can always draw upon the light of those who came before us. I hope you keep that light burning within you.”
The president had time for just six questions, and scores of hands shot up each time he sought a new questioner.
Asked for his views on jihad, Obama described Islam as a religion of peace and understanding, yet one that terrorists have sought to distort by justifying killings in the name of religion. “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 and liberate them. “If all you’re thinking about is material wealth,” Obama said, “then I think that shows a poverty of ambition.”
In response to a question about his policy toward Afghanistan, Obama said a “stable Afghanistan is achievable.”
He reiterated plans to begin removing US troops, 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.”
Earlier at Holy Name High School, the Obamas listened to a detailed explanation of environmental projects by children, which impressed the president, who promotes studies in the field of science.
The Obamas then took part in a candle-lighting ceremony and watched girls in colorful garb of blues, greens, pinks and orange perform a swaying dance with graceful hand gestures.
A final, lively performance got Mrs. Obama twirling and bouncing with the students. The kids eventually pulled the president up to dance, his arms pumping away, enshrining a lasting memory of his journey to Asia.