BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Speaking to us from a bunker in Florida [LAUGHS] and I'm -
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Don't even ask.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Hey Bob, we meet again.
BOB GARFIELD: We do indeed. I apologize for the tinniness of what follows but the microphone I have is the microphone I have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] What are you, the Donald Rumsfeld of – radio announcers?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] That’s correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, just to save the listeners’ ears for a while, I will read this intro in to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: President Obama’s first tour of Asia was heavily covered by the U.S. press.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: President Obama tending to one of America’s most complicated and critical relationships, China, this morning -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Commentators made sure to note the difficulties he faced.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Obama arrived in Shanghai in a driving rain. The challenges here though began before his feet even touched the tarmac.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when the president touched down at home Thursday, he was welcomed by pundits with a verdict on his trip. The consensus? They thought he'd showed an inveterate lack of vertebra.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: There is a real danger here that the Chinese will have concluded from this that the United States is a power on the wane and a president who is cautious and timid, and we can pretty much have our way and -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who has reported both from China and worked within a presidential administration, joins us to talk about the president’s trip and the media coverage it engendered. Bob, take it from here.
BOB GARFIELD: I've been reading about the president’s trip to China in The New York Times and The Washington Post, in particular, and had come to discover that it was a complete fiasco. He let us down as a spokesman for American values and human rights and as a spokesman for a floating Chinese currency to improve the trade imbalance between our two countries. Did he do anything right?
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS] Well, you know, compared to any rational expectations of what this trip could have accomplished, President Obama did pretty well. I think the tone of the U.S. coverage says more about sort of embedded narratives in the U.S. press mindset than it does anything that happened or didn't happen in Tokyo or Beijing or Shanghai.
BOB GARFIELD: What sort of narratives?
JAMES FALLOWS: One of them is an idea that China is now our paymaster; therefore, American presidents must act as petitioners. And I think that China has much less leverage than that image would imply, and we're much more mutually at each other’s mercy than is usually suggested. And also, one assumption from this tone is that if we weren't in debt to the Chinese, Obama would have gone there and have pounded his fist on the table and say, we really disapprove of your policy in Tibet, we really want people to be let out of jails. Number one, that’s not how Barack Obama is, ever, anywhere, in any circumstance, and number two, I think nobody who has ever dealt with the Chinese leadership thinks that is a way you accomplish things, whether it’s on currency values or environmental cooperation or anything else.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, let's go to the text because the pieces I'm actually referring to are an editorial in The New York Times, a piece by Paul Krugman, the economics columnist with a somewhat broader portfolio [LAUGHS] than that -
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. And they all kind of acknowledged that the president did this, this and this – for example, raised the issue of Tibet, raised the issue of human rights, raised the issue of the currency imbalance. But there was always a “but” - he should have done more. Is that a fair analysis that the president should have been more assertive?
JAMES FALLOWS: I guess it’s fair on a compared-to-what basis. I think if you apply the metric of any American president will behave more or less in his own nature and his own political style when he’s traveling around the world, then you have a pretty realistic projection of how they will be. When Bill Clinton was in China in his first visit after Tiananmen Square in the late 1990s, he held a kind of rollicking town meeting which was like the other town meetings Bill Clinton has held.
BOB GARFIELD: Clinton famously criticized the Chinese for Tiananmen Square, and that is one of the points made by the various editorialists, saying if President Clinton could be so bold why couldn't President Obama?
JAMES FALLOWS: While standing next to Hu Jintao in Beijing, he said, we believe you should meet with the Dalai Lama, which is at the moment a much more sensitive issue in China than Tiananmen is. In his appearance in Shanghai, when asked about the Great Firewall, when asked about freedom of expression, Barack Obama made the point, I think, about as well as you could expect a visiting American statesman to make. Did he do a perfect job? Of course not. I'm mainly reacting against the tone that this was a disaster, a failure or a humiliation. If you want to think of that, remember the first George Bush vomiting on the Japanese prime minister [BOB LAUGHS] back in 1991. Now, that’s a humiliation.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, that was a faux pas.
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: So to what do you attribute the kind of reflexive criticism of a president who is acknowledged to have done some of what these commentators were looking for, but not quite enough?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think, number one, if you have a traveling political press corps which is mainly concerned with the way the President is doing on his home terrain, if they think he is being weak, if they think he’s losing ground, if they think he’s not standing up for himself, it’s natural to see those things in a foreign setting, too. I think also there is the background sense that China has gotten stronger and more dominant over the United States than, in my view, it really is. And if that’s what you’re thinking, if you think that anything the president doesn't say must be because he needs that next billion dollars in Chinese money, then you make that connection, whereas I think there are other explanations of what he did and did not say.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jim. Well, as always, thank you so much.
JAMES FALLOWS: My pleasure, thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: James Fallows is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He spends a whole lot of time in China but is speaking to us this week from Washington, D.C.