Amid bumpy Asia trip, Obama finds oasis in talking with young people

President Obama shed his tie and rolled up his sleeves to talk to young leaders from around Southeast Asia. He has made such meetings a feature of his 11 trips to the region.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
US President Obama talks with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative at Souphanouvong University in Luang Prabang, Laos, Wednesday, Sept. 7.

President Obama found himself in a familiar setting Wednesday during his historic visit to Laos: inside a university auditorium taking questions from young people.

With his tie off and sleeves rolled up, Mr. Obama addressed issues ranging from global health to the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Summit in the mountainous northern town of Luang Praban. He delivered a message of optimism to his ambitious and youthful audience – more than 70 percent of the population in Laos is under 30 – in what has become a ritual component of his trips to the region.

Obama has made a point to reach out to young people on many of the 11 trips he’s made to Asia since taking office in 2009. His visit to Laos this week, the first for any sitting US president, has proved no different – and his administration hopes events like the one on Wednesday will form a lasting impression on a generation of young leaders in the world’s fastest-growing and youngest region.

“If we aren’t here, interacting and learning from you, and understanding the culture of the region, then we’ll be left behind,” Obama said in response to a question about the future of US-Southeast Asian relations. “We’ll miss an opportunity and I don’t want that to happen.” 

After a week of headline-stealing diplomatic squabbles – first on a tarmac in China and second with an insult lobbed at him by the Filipino president – Obama appeared buoyant at Wednesday's town hall. (The event was live streamed on the White House website.) He made sure to allow a young person from every country in attendance to ask a question and seemed to relish the opportunity to relive his days as a college professor. 

One of the Obama’s most notable political assets has been his ability to engage young Americans. Bilveer Singh, an international relations specialist at the National University of Singapore, says the same can be said about the president’s appeal overseas.

“It’s not just about what Obama has done but what he symbolizes,” Mr. Singh says, referring to Obama’s status as the first black president of the US. “His story is a great inspiration to young people all over the world. That’s the Obama effect.”

The president has taken full advantage of that during his visits to more than 50 countries over the past seven years. From Havana to Hanoi, he has often addressed young people directly with soaring and inspirational language. What has emerged is a common message of self-determination, national pride, and global unity, especially on his trips to Southeast Asia, where he spent part of his youth.

“Unlocking a nation’s potential depends on empowering all its people, especially its young people,” Obama said at the University of Yangon in Myanmar in 2012. And in Vietnam earlier this year: “I want to say to all the young people listening: Your talent, your drive, your dreams – in those things, Vietnam has everything it needs to thrive.”

Obama’s efforts have paid considerable dividends for America’s global image among younger generations. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that young people in 22 of 39 nations expressed significantly more favorable views toward America than their parents and grandparents. Overall, a median of 69 percent of countries surveyed held a favorable opinion of the US, while just 24 percent expressed an unfavorable view. 

Still, not all young people have fallen for the so-called Obama effect. Deny Giovanno, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia who was a law student there when Obama visited in 2010, recalls only minor details from the president’s hour-long speech in the university's field house.

“How he spoke at that time was very good and he surely has amazing public speaking skills,” Mr. Giovanno says in an email. “But what I remember is how he talked about Nasi Goreng and Bakso” – traditional Indonesian dishes.

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