LISBON, Portugal — Back on the world stage for crucial talks, President Barack Obama on Friday quickly encountered European leaders willing to question a president weakened at home and rebuffed abroad.
Standing next to Obama to address the media after the two met privately, Portugal's president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, complained that the level of U.S. investment in his country is “far from what you would expect.”
He said Portuguese trade and exports to the U.S. also were far from where they could be.
Obama did not respond to Cavaco Silva's comments when it was his turn to speak, choosing to focus on the goals for his latest trip abroad to attend NATO and U.S.-European Union summits.
“We've come to Lisbon again to revitalize the NATO alliance for the 21st century and to strengthen the partnership between the United States and the European Union,” Obama said.
The president said the summit also provides an important opportunity for NATO and European nations to align their approach to transition in Afghanistan “as we move toward a new phase, a transition to Afghan responsibility beginning in 2011 with Afghan forces taking the lead for security across Afghanistan by 2014.”
After his meeting with Portugal's president, Obama sat down with the country's prime minister, Jose Socrates. Obama told Socrates the United States would work with Portugal and Europe to address financial ills.
“Portugal is working through challenges created by some of the financial markets and I think that it's important to note that the prime minister has committed himself to a very, very vigorous package of economic steps,” Obama said after their meeting, “and we are going to be working with all of Europe as well as Portugal in support of these efforts.”
Coming off midterm elections at home where high unemployment contributed to steep Democratic losses in Congress, Obama also was careful to underscore jobs and economic benefits as the “highest priority for both our countries.” He said they'd work to increase trade and investments.
Socrates also highlighted work on economic issues, asserting that the countries agreed on the need for greater multilateral cooperation to reform and better regulate financial institutions.
Socrates said the summit “will also open a new era of relations with Russia” that would contribute to global security. The NATO alliance was originally founded in 1949 to counter the threat of a Soviet invasion.
Socrates also said that he'd guaranteed to Obama that Portugal would be “stepping up its presence in Afghanistan” by providing training to troops there.
Obama's two-day Portugal trip comes days after a sometimes disappointing 10-day swing through Asia, the longest foreign trip of his presidency. Though he failed to ink a free-trade deal with South Korea and couldn't rally wide-ranging support for his opposition to China's currency manipulation, he did make clear that fast-growing Asia is central to U.S. foreign policy.
It's a reality not lost in Europe, where some leaders worry that Obama views the continent as a secondary player in his foreign policy agenda.
“There is some disappointment in the sense of how much attention he's given to Europe — that maybe he's been more focused on Asia, more focused on other problem areas, and that really the interest in Europe is about how many trainers and forces you can provide for Afghanistan,” said Stephen Flanagan, a former State Department official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Those concerns peaked earlier this year when European Union officials were forced to cancel a summit with the U.S. planned for Madrid in May after the White House said Obama would not attend.
Both U.S. and European officials say the administration has worked hard since then to bridge any divides with Europe, and Obama has called the relationship a “cornerstone” of U.S. foreign policy.
“We are each other's closest partners. Neither Europe nor the United States can confront the challenges of our time without the other,” Obama wrote in a New York Times opinion piece published Thursday.
The White House has been quick to note that Obama's trip to Portugal will be his eighth trip to the continent since taking office — though many of those stops have been just long enough for the president to spend the night. Two separate visits to Copenhagen, Denmark, last year didn't even allow time for that.
Obama's direct engagement with the European Union while in Lisbon will be brief. Just two hours have been allocated on Saturday for the delayed U.S.-EU summit, though European nations will play a central role in the more extensive NATO meetings.
Chief among Europe's concerns: Afghanistan, counterterrorism and the economy, which is again causing deep concern on the continent amid news that European countries may have to step in to help stabilize debt-stricken Ireland.
Some in Europe have questioned Obama's handling of the economic crisis, most notably his reliance on stimulus spending as a path toward recovery when many European nations are slashing spending and raising taxes. Several countries, including Germany, have criticized the Federal Reserve's recent $600 billion bond-purchase plan, saying it would give U.S. exporters a competitive price edge by flooding world markets with dollars. A weaker dollar makes U.S. goods more attractive to foreign buyers.
Despite the growing policy divide, the economic ties between the U.S. and Europe remain strong. By some estimates, one in 10 U.S. jobs is created as a result of the relationship, and $4 trillion in trade and investment flows across the Atlantic each year. Both parties plan to discuss opportunities for more cooperation.
Obama will also face skepticism from Europe over his strategy in Afghanistan. Many European leaders are under pressure to reduce their countries' combat roles in Afghanistan or shift to a training-focused mission.
The White House hopes a plan NATO is expected to adopt outlining a timeline to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans by 2014 will appease U.S. allies and provide them political cover at home. The agreement will call for the transfer to begin next year and continue across Afghanistan's 34 provinces through the end of 2014, based on conditions on the ground.
Obama and his European counterparts are also expected to discuss increased security cooperation in light of recent terror threats that led the U.S. to issue travel alerts to Europe after attempted attacks on cargo transport networks.